RNA vs DNA
Country: United States
Date: April 2007
Hello, one question. Why is DNA our genetic material and
not RNA. What characteristics of RNA strip it from preferential
characteristics that DNA has? There is something about reacting
with OH-, but I'm not entirely sure of the reason. Your help is
The main reason DNA is better for 'safe' storage of information is its
stability. There are several different ways DNA resists change more than
RNA; here are some:
First, as you noted, the deoxyribose sugar in DNA is less reactive than the
ribose sugar. In general C-H bonds are less reactive than C-OH (hydroxyl).
Also, RNA is not very stable in alkaline conditions, while DNA is.
More broadly speaking, the double-strand DNA (dsDNA) has relatively small
'grooves' where damaging enzymes can attach, which makes it harder for them
to 'attack' the DNA. Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) has much larger grooves, so
it would more subject to being broken down.
Second, the connection between the strands of dsDNA is tighter than dsRNA --
it's easier to 'unzip' dsRNA than it is to unzip dsDNA.
Overall, it's easier (faster, requires less energy) to break down and reform
RNA than DNA -- since we want our genetic material to be stable, we want the
substance that's harder to break down.
As an interesting side note, it is well known that DNA can be damaged by UV,
but RNA is actually more resistant to damage by UV. Also, the sequence of
DNA and its physical conformation (the shape the strands are folded into)
seems to play a role as well.
This might be a chicken-egg point, but it's important to note that the body
actively destroys enzymes that cleave DNA (called nucleases) -- when it
needs to cleave DNA, it makes its own specific enzymes. It's one of several
ways DNA is protected against damage. The body can actually "identify"
foreign DNA and destroy it, and not destroy its own DNA.
Unlike DNA, RNA strands are continually made, broken down, and reused. If
you add up the chemical stability, the energy it takes to break or make DNA
and RNA bonds, and the availability of enzymes to do this work, a compelling
case for DNA over RNA can be made.
Hope this helps,
This is a very interesting question. RNA and DNA are chemical cousins, RNA
(ribonucleic acid) has an additional 2' OH group on its ribose sugar (which
is why DNA is called deoxyribonucleic acid) and uses uracil instead of
thymine (which differ only by a CH3 group). Like DNA, RNA can form a double
helix structure and can store information because like DNA it is constructed
from four bases along a sugar phosphate backbone.
One of the main reasons RNA is less stable than DNA is that the 2' OH group
of RNA can react with the molecule's backbone in flexible regions, causing
the molecule to cleave. Since long strands of RNA are therefore chemically
less stable, organisms which evolved to use DNA instead of RNA to protect
their biological code probably had a selective advantage. This may explain
why almost all of life uses DNA as its genetic code (an exception to this
are certain viruses which use RNA).
An important discovery by Tom Cech of the University of Colorado showed that
RNA can actually adopt complex structures and can act as an enzyme (a
molecule that catalyzes a reaction). Because RNA can encode biological
information, many scientists speculate that life may have originated from an
RNA molecule which contained the information to copy itself and the
enzymatic ability to do so. This is known as the "RNA World hypothesis."
Stanford Department of Chemistry
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Update: June 2012