The Double Helix
The double helix of DNA has these features:
- It contains two polynucleotide strands wound around each other.
- The backbone of each consists of alternating deoxyribose and phosphate groups.
- The phosphate group bonded to the 5' carbon atom of one deoxyribose is covalently bonded to the 3' carbon of the next.
- The two strands are "antiparallel"; that is, one strand runs 5′ to 3′ while the other runs 3′ to 5′.
- The DNA strands are assembled in the 5′ to 3′ direction [More] and, by convention, we "read" them the same way.
- The purine or pyrimidine attached to each deoxyribose projects in toward the axis of the helix.
- Each base forms hydrogen bonds with the one directly opposite it, forming base pairs (also called nucleotide pairs).
- 3.4 Å separate the planes in which adjacent base pairs are located.
- The double helix makes a complete turn in just over 10 nucleotide pairs, so each turn takes a little more (35.7 Å to be exact) than the 34 Å shown in the diagram.
- There is an average of 25 hydrogen bonds within each complete turn of the double helix providing a stability of binding about as strong as what a covalent bond would provide.
- The diameter of the helix is 20 Å.
- The helix can be virtually any length; when fully stretched, some DNA molecules are as much as 5 cm (2 inches!) long.
- The path taken by the two backbones forms a major (wider) groove (from "34 A" to the top of the arrow) and a minor (narrower) groove (the one below).
This structure of DNA was worked out by Francis Crick and James D. Watson in 1953. It revealed how DNA — the molecule that Avery had shown was the physical substance of the genes [Link] — could be replicated and so passed on from generation to generation. For this epochal work, they shared a Nobel Prize in 1962.
15 February 2020