Genetic information can be provided by DNA or RNA

  • The central dogma describes the basic nature of genetic information: sequences of nucleic acid can be perpetuated and interconverted by replication, transcription, and reverse transcription, but translation from nucleic acid to protein is unidirectional, because nucleic acid sequences cannot be retrieved from protein sequences.
  • A retrovirus is an RNA virus with the ability to convert its sequence into DNA by reverse transcription.
  • Reverse transcription is synthesis of DNA on a template of RNA. It is accomplished by the enzyme reverse transcriptase.
  • Cellular genes are DNA, but viruses and viroids may have genes of RNA.
  • DNA is converted into RNA by transcription, and RNA may be converted into DNA by reverse transcription.
  • The translation of RNA into protein is unidirectional.  

The central dogma defines the paradigm of molecular biology. Genes are perpetuated as sequences of nucleic acid, but function by being expressed in the form of proteins. Replication is responsible for the inheritance of genetic information. Transcription and translation are responsible for its conversion from one form to another.

Figure 1.43 illustrates the roles of replication, transcription, and translation, viewed from the perspective of the central dogma:
  • The perpetuation of nucleic acid may involve either DNA or RNA as the genetic material. Cells use only DNA. Some viruses use RNA, and replication of viral RNA occurs in the infected cell.
  • The expression of cellular genetic information usually is unidirectional. Transcription of DNA generates RNA molecules that can be used further only to generate protein sequences; generally they cannot be retrieved for use as genetic information. Translation of RNA into protein is always irreversible.

These mechanisms are equally effective for the cellular genetic information of prokaryotes or eukaryotes, and for the information carried by viruses. The genomes of all living organisms consist of duplex DNA. Viruses have genomes that consist of DNA or RNA; and there are examples of each type that are double-stranded (ds) or single-stranded (ss). Details of the mechanism used to replicate the nucleic acid vary among the viral systems, but the principle of replication via synthesis of complementary strands remains the same, as illustrated in Figure 1.44.
Cellular genomes reproduce DNA by the mechanism of semi-conservative replication. Double-stranded virus genomes, whether DNA or RNA, also replicate by using the individual strands of the duplex as templates to synthesize partner strands.
Viruses with single-stranded genomes use the single strand as template to synthesize a complementary strand; and this complementary strand in turn is used to synthesize its complement, which is, of course, identical with the original starting strand. Replication may involve the formation of stable double-stranded intermediates or use double-stranded nucleic acid only as a transient stage.
The restriction to unidirectional transfer from DNA to RNA is not absolute. It is overcome by the retroviruses, whose genomes consist of single-stranded RNA molecules. During the infective cycle, the RNA is converted by the process of reverse transcription into a single-stranded DNA, which in turn is converted into a double-stranded DNA. This duplex DNA becomes part of the genome of the cell, and is inherited like any other gene. So reverse transcription allows a sequence of RNA to be retrieved and used as genetic information.
The existence of RNA replication and reverse transcription establishes the general principle that information in the form of either type of nucleic acid sequence can be converted into the other type. In the usual course of events, however, the cell relies on the processes of DNA replication, transcription, and translation. But on rare occasions (possibly mediated by an RNA virus), information from a cellular RNA is converted into DNA and inserted into the genome. Although reverse transcription plays no role in the regular operations of the cell, it becomes a mechanism of potential importance when we consider the evolution of the genome.

The same principles are followed to perpetuate genetic information from the massive genomes of plants or amphibians to the tiny genomes of mycoplasma and the yet smaller genetic information of DNA or RNA viruses. Figure 1.45 summarizes some examples that illustrate the range of genome types and sizes.

Throughout the range of organisms, with genomes varying in total content over a 100,000 fold range, a common principle prevails. The DNA codes for all the proteins that the cell(s) of the organism must synthesize; and the proteins in turn (directly or indirectly) provide the functions needed for survival. A similar principle describes the function of the genetic information of viruses, whether DNA or RNA. The nucleic acid codes for the protein(s) needed to package the genome and also for any functions additional to those provided by the host cell that are needed to reproduce the virus during its infective cycle. (The smallest virus, the satellite tobacco necrosis virus [STNV], cannot replicate independently, but requires the simultaneous presence of a "helper" virus [tobacco necrosis virus, TNV], which is itself a normally infectious virus.)

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