Spotlight On: DNA and RNA

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At some point in your life, someone may have told you “You have your mom’s eyes” or “You have good genes.” Well, it all has to do with your DNA.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is made up of two long strands of genetic codes that are connected by four molecules. These molecules—two on each side—form the shape of a spiral staircase. DNA exists in all cells of every living organism. Humans have so much that if we each lined up the DNA in all of our cells it would stretch to be about twice the diameter of the solar system!

Each long strand of DNA is made up of genetic information called genes that contains information for your eye color, height and every other piece of information that makes you who you are. DNA is also passed on from generation to generation—which is why you may have physical or other characteristics that are similar to your relatives. Because the DNA strands are so long in humans, they are packaged tightly into structures called chromosomes so that they can fit in the well-protected inner part of the cell called the nucleus.

In humans, the material in your DNA is useless without ribonucleic acid (RNA). Think of RNA as an interpretation of DNA—it gets translated into a protein that the body can use. DNA must be converted into a single-stranded RNA molecule that can leave the nucleus in order to become useful to your body.

Proteins are very important because they carry out most of the work in the body, including regulating how your organs work. Without RNA, the information that DNA carries will not be beneficial to us. When the protein is made, it folds into the right shape to be able to function well. Some proteins combine with other molecules such as sugar groups to be able to work the way they should. Once the protein is packaged, it’s delivered to the part of the cell where it will do its job.

The next time someone compliments your genes, you’ll know the inside story of what that means.

Ijeoma Obi, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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