DNA structure and function

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Abstract

The proposal of a double-helical structure for DNA over 60 years ago provided an eminently satisfying explanation for the heritability of genetic information. But why is DNA, and not RNA, now the dominant biological information store? We argue that, in addition to its coding function, the ability of DNA, unlike RNA, to adopt a B-DNA structure confers advantages both for information accessibility and for packaging. The information encoded by DNA is both digital – the precise base specifying, for example, amino acid sequences – and analogue. The latter determines the sequence-dependent physicochemical properties of DNA, for example, its stiffness and susceptibility to strand separation. Most importantly, DNA chirality enables the formation of supercoiling under torsional stress. We review recent evidence suggesting that DNA supercoiling, particularly that generated by DNA translocases, is a major driver of gene regulation and patterns of chromosomal gene organization, and in its guise as a promoter of DNA packaging enables DNA to act as an energy store to facilitate the passage of translocating enzymes such as RNA polymerase.

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