Introduction to DNA Structure

A Molecular Graphics companion to an Introductory Course in Biology or Biochemistry. Copyright 1995, Richard B. Hallick. All rights reserved


Components of DNA

DNA is a polymer. The monomer units of DNA are nucleotides, and the polymer is known as a "polynucleotide." Each nucleotide consists of a 5-carbon sugar (deoxyribose), a nitrogen containing base attached to the sugar, and a phosphate group. There are four different types of nucleotides found in DNA, differing only in the nitrogenous base. The four nucleotides are given one letter abbreviations as shorthand for the four bases.

Purine Bases

Adenine and guanine are purines. Purines are the larger of the two types of bases found in DNA. Structures are shown below:

Structure of A and G

The 9 atoms that make up the fused rings (5 carbon, 4 nitrogen) are numbered 1-9. All ring atoms lie in the same plane.

Pyrimidine Bases

Cytosine and thymine are pyrimidines. The 6 stoms (4 carbon, 2 nitrogen) are numbered 1-6. Like purines, all pyrimidine ring atoms lie in the same plane.

Structure of C and T

Deoxyribose Sugar

The deoxyribose sugar of the DNA backbone has 5 carbons and 3 oxygens. The carbon atoms are numbered 1', 2', 3', 4', and 5' to distinguish from the numbering of the atoms of the purine and pyrmidine rings. The hydroxyl groups on the 5'- and 3'- carbons link to the phosphate groups to form the DNA backbone. Deoxyribose lacks an hydroxyl group at the 2'-position when compared to ribose, the sugar component of RNA.

Structure of deoxyribose


A nucleoside is one of the four DNA bases covalently attached to the C1' position of a sugar. The sugar in deoxynucleosides is 2'-deoxyribose. The sugar in ribonucleosides is ribose. Nucleosides differ from nucleotides in that they lack phosphate groups. The four different nucleosides of DNA are deoxyadenosine (dA), deoxyguanosine (dG), deoxycytosine (dC), and (deoxy)thymidine (dT, or T).

Structure of dA

In dA and dG, there is an "N-glycoside" bond between the sugar C1' and N9 of the purine.


A nucleotide is a nucleoside with one or more phosphate groups covalently attached to the 3'- and/or 5'-hydroxyl group(s).

DNA Backbone

The DNA backbone is a polymer with an alternating sugar-phosphate sequence. The deoxyribose sugars are joined at both the 3'-hydroxyl and 5'-hydroxyl groups to phosphate groups in ester links, also known as "phosphodiester" bonds.

Example of DNA Backbone: 5'-d(CGAAT):

Features of the 5'-d(CGAAT) structure:

DNA Double Helix

DNA is a normally double stranded macromolecule. Two polynucleotide chains, held together by weak thermodynamic forces, form a DNA molecule.

Structure of DNA Double Helix

Features of the DNA Double Helix

Base Pairs

Within the DNA double helix, A forms 2 hydrogen bonds with T on the opposite strand, and G forms 3 hyrdorgen bonds with C on the opposite strand.

Example of dA-dT base pair as found within DNA double helix

Example of dG-dC base pair as found within DNA double helix

DNA Helix Axis

The helix axis is most apparent from a view directly down the axis. The sugar-phosphate backbone is on the outside of the helix where the polar phosphate groups (red and yellow atoms) can interact with the polar environment. The nitrogen (blue atoms) containing bases are inside, stacking perpendicular to the helix axis.

View down the helix axis