What is DNA?

Edited by: Chiara Bertipaglia, Science Editor, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University & Kaitlyn Powers, Blog Editor, Marketing Student at Fordham University



The DNA is a molecule that encodes all the information needed to build and maintain living organisms. One could say the DNA is the blueprint of life. It is stored inside the nucleus of every cell, and is made up of two helices, intertwined to form a long thread.

Each living being you can think of (bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, humans) has its own unique DNA that distinguishes it as an individual from the rest of the organisms on Earth.

By translating its information into any characteristics of a living being, the DNA is responsible for encoding the instructions to build any part of our body i.e. a muscle, the eyes, the skin, the heart.

How can this be achieved?

Within every organism, every cell contains the exact same, identical copy of DNA (depicted as a red thread in every cell). If we think of a neuron and a skin cell, we quickly realize how different they are from one another. Neurons are responsible for our thoughts, memories and feelings, while skin cells form a barrier that offers mechanical protection from the environment. However, both these types of cells carry the same copy of DNA, and both use the same blueprint to define themselves and to perform their very distinct functions. What makes these cells diverse is that they use only some parts of the DNA and not others. In a way, a skin cell has all the information to be a neuron but “chooses” to be a skin cell, and vice versa

Overall, the DNA is a molecule that holds a remarkable amount of responsibility in determining how the various parts of the body look like and function. For a visual depiction of the complexity of DNA, refer to our newest Visual Science illustration below.

Image credit: Markel Olabarria, Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University








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