Science at Home - Have Your DNA and Eat It Too


Science at Home: Make an Edible DNA Model (pdf)

DNA provides the instructions for building and operating all living things. The DNA instructions are divided into segments called genes. Each gene provides the information for making a protein, which carries out a specific function in the cell.

A molecule of DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) is composed of two backbones and four types of chemical bases. The backbone is formed by a chain of alternating phosphates and sugars. Each sugar molecule in the backbone provides an attachment site for one of the chemical bases.

The four types of chemical bases are adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. They usually are represented by their first letters: A, T, C and G. The bases form pairs in a very specific way: A always pairs with T, and C always pairs with G. A pair of bases is connected by hydrogen bonds. Each base in the pair is also connected to a sugar compound in the DNA backbone. A DNA molecule is often compared to a ladder, with the two backbones forming the sides of the ladder and the base pairs forming the steps, or rungs. However, instead of a straight ladder, DNA looks like a twisted ladder, known as a double helix (“double” for the two backbones).

The DNA sequence is the consecutive order of bases on one side, or strand, of the twisted ladder. The other strand has a complementary sequence determined by the base pairing rules. The specific matching of the base pairs, A with T and C with G, provides a way for exact copies of DNA to be made. This process is called DNA replication. In DNA replication, the double helix ladder is untwisted and the two strands are separated by breaking the hydrogen bonds between the base pairs. Next, two new strands are made by reading each side of the DNA ladder, one step (base) at a time. At each step, the matching base fills in (with its associated sugar and phosphate) to complete the rung and lengthen the new DNA strand. When the process is complete, there are two identical DNA double helices, each containing one original and one new strand. DNA replication is an important part of the cell division process. Before a cell divides, it first duplicates its DNA so that the new cell will have the same genetic information. The specific base pair matching during replication ensures that exact DNA copies are made.