6.2.2 Properties of Genetic Material (DNA versus RNA)

From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that the debate between proteins versus DNA as the genetic material was unequivocally resolved from Hershey-Chase experiment. It became an established fact that it is DNA that acts as genetic material. However, it subsequently became clear that in some viruses, RNA is the genetic material (for example, Tobacco Mosaic viruses, QB bacteriophage, etc.).

Answer to some of the questions such as, why DNA is the predominant genetic material, whereas RNA performs dynamic functions of messenger and adapter has to be found from the differences between chemical structures of the two nucleic acid molecules.

A molecule that can act as a genetic material must fulfill the following criteria:

  • It should be able to generate its replica (Replication).
  • It should chemically and structurally be stable.
  • It should provide the scope for slow changes (mutation) that are required for evolution.
  • It should be able to express itself in the form of 'Mendelian Characters’

If one examines each requirement one by one, because of rule of base pairing and complementarity, both the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) have the ability to direct their duplications. The other molecules in the living system, such as proteins fail to fulfill first criteria itself.

The genetic material should be stable enough not to change with different stages of life cycle, age or with change in physiology of the organism. Stability as one of the properties of genetic material was very evident in Griffith’s ‘transforming principle’ itself that heat, which killed the bacteria, at least did not destroy some of the properties of genetic material.

This now can easily be explained in light of the DNA that the two strands being complementary if separated by heating come together, when appropriate conditions are provided. Further, 2'-OH group present at every nucleotide in RNA is a reactive group and makes RNA labile and easily degradable. RNA is also now known to be catalytic, hence reactive. Therefore, DNA chemically is less reactive and structurally more stable when compared to RNA.

Therefore, among the two nucleic acids, the DNA is a better genetic material. In fact, the presence of thymine at the place of uracil also confers additional stability to DNA. (Detailed discussion about this requires understanding of the process of repair in DNA, and you will study these processes in higher classes.) Both DNA and RNA are able to mutate. In fact, RNA being unstable, mutate at a faster rate.

Consequently, viruses having RNA genome and having shorter life span mutate and evolve faster. RNA can directly code for the synthesis of proteins, hence can easily express the characters. DNA, however, is dependent on RNA for synthesis of proteins.

The protein synthesising machinery has evolved around RNA. The above discussion indicate that both RNA and DNA can function as genetic material, but DNA being more stable is preferred for storage of genetic information. For the transmission of genetic information, RNA is better.

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