What is Genetic Material : Defination, types and functions of Genetic Material

What is Genetic Material  : Defination, types and functions of Genetic Material 


Genetic Material


What is Genetic Material?

DNA is the genetic material  of all living organisms with the exception of RNA viruses present in nucleus. According to the model of Watson and Crick, DNA consists of two polynucleotide chains, which form a double helix. The two strands of DNA are complementary to each other. The amount of DNA varies from organism to organism.

DNA contains all the genetic information of an organisms that is necessary for the functions of the organism. Short sequence of nucleotide is called genes. Genes are the unit of information.

Prokaryotic cell genetic material have a major circular DNA molecule and sometimes a number of smaller circular molecules, called plasmids. In eukaryotic cells DNA is distributed in the nucleus, mitochondria and chloroplasts (plant cells). The DNA of the nucleus is distributed in humans into 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chromosomes show different degrees of aggregation depending on the stage of the cell cycle in which we observe them. 

Chromosomes are visible under the optical microscope during metaphase, because at this stage of the cell cycle they show the highest degree of aggregation. At this stage each chromosome consists of two sister chromatids, which are retained in the centromere. The representation of chromosomes in pairs in decreasing size is called karyotype. Mitochondria (in most organisms) and chloroplasts have circular DNA molecules, which contain information about the function of these organelles.

The genetic material of a cell is its genome . Cells in which the genome is present in a single copy, such as prokaryotic cells and gametes of diploids, are called haploids . Cells in which the genome is present in two copies, such as the somatic cells of higher eukaryotic organisms, are called diploids . In eukaryotic cells, the genetic material is distributed in the nucleus, mitochondria and chloroplasts. Usually, however, the term genome refers to the genetic material found in the nucleus.

To describe the length or sequence of a nucleic acid is used the term number or base sequence respectively. We actually mean the number or sequence of nucleotides of nucleic acid. This simplification is done because the only part of the nucleotide that changes is the nitrogenous base. Thus, a DNA molecule is reported to be 2,000 base pairs long because it is double-stranded, while an mRNA molecule is 2,000 bases long because it is single-stranded.



Definition of genetic material

The genetic material is defined as  A material which carries genetic information of organisms like Plants, Animals and microorganisms and that passes it from one generation to the next generation is called genetic material. The information contained in the form if gene and it controls verious metabolic  reactions such as reproduction, growth and development, Photosynthesis etc.



Types of Genetic Material:

There are two types of genetic material DNA and second one is RNA.

RNA : RNA (Ribose nucleic acid)

  1. RNA is a type of nucleic acid containing ribose sugar.
  2. Generally RNA is single stranded. In linear RNA, the nitrogen bases are unpaired but in the folded RNA nitrogen bases are paired in certain regions.
  3. Hence purine pyrimidine ratio may or may not be 1:1. It is formed by linking many smaller units called ribonucleotides linked with each other by phosphodiester linkage.
  4. Each ribonucleotide consists of three chemicals ribose sugar, phosphate group and a type of nitrogen base (A, G, U or C). RNA contain A, G as a purine and C, U(instead ot T) as pyrimidine.
  5. There are two types of RNA: Genetic RNA. and Non genetic RNA.


Genetic RNA : The RNA which functions as a genetic material is called genetic RNA. It stores and carries genetic information. It is present in some viruses (plant viruses).


Non genetic RNA: The RNA which does not function as a genetic material is called non genetic RNA. It is involved in protein synthesis and also carry out some other functions of cell. lt is present in all organisms except some viruses.

Types of non genetic RNA:

A) Messenger RNA (m-RNA).

B) Ribosomal RNA (r-RNA).

C) Transfer RNA (tRNA).



2. DNA : DNA  (DeoxyRibose nucleic acid) :  

DNA is the genetic material  of all living organisms with the exception of RNA viruses. According to the model (1953) of Watson and Crick, DNA consists of two polynucleotide chains called strand, which form a double helix. The two strands of DNA are complementary to each other. The two strands are held together by weak hydrogen bonds present in between the nitrogen bases of two strands. Each polynucleotide chain has 3' and 5' ends. 5' end having free phosphate group and 3' end having free OH group. The amount of DNA varies from organism to organism.

DNA contains all the genetic information of an organisms that is necessary for the functions of the organism.


DNA is the genetic material

The experiments in brief which prove that DNA is the genetic material:

Griffith's experiment (1928) :

  • Frederick Griffith performed experiment on pneumonia causing bacteria Diplo coccus pneumoniae.
  • There are two strains of bacteria: a) Smooth strain (S strain) capsulated and pathogenic. b) Rough strain (R strain) non capsulated and non pathogenic.
  • The smooth strain is capsulated and pathogenic or virulant while the rough strain is non capsulated and non pathogenic or a virulant.

Griffith injected these bacteria in mice and found following results : 

  1. R-strain injected bacteria  Survived
  2. S- strain injected bacteria  died
  3. Heat killed S- strain injected bacteria survived
  4. Heat killed S- strain + living R Strain injected bacteria died.

  • The bacteria isolated irom the died mice of fourth set found to contain cells of both strains. 
  • This indicates that in the fourth set or experiment heat killed S strain caused transformation of some R strain into S strain.
  • From the above experiments, Griffith concluded that non pathogenic K strain bacteria are converted into pathogenic S- strain bacteria due to active transtorming principle i. e., genetic material. 
  • Griffith could not determine the chemical nature of the genetic material.


Experiment by Avery, Macleod and

McCarty (1944):

  1. Avery, Macleod and McCarty continued experiment of bacterial transformation and identified DNA as genetic material.
  2. They separated carbohydrates, proteins and DNA fractions from pathogenic S-strain bacterium Diplococcus pneumonia. Each fraction was added to separate, non pathogenic R-strain cell cultures as follows : 
  3. i) R-cells +Carbohydrates of S-strain Rcells.
  4. R-cells + Protein of S-strain R-cells.
  5. R-cells + DNA of S-strain R-cells + S cells 
  6. R- cells + DNA of S-strain + DNA-ase enzyme >R cells.
  7. Thus it was discovered that R-cells picked up characters only from DNA and get changed into S-cells. When DNA ase (DNA destroying enzyme was added then transformation did not take place, hence DNA is transforming substance i. e., genetic material.


Hershey and Chase showing DNA as a genetic material

  1. Hershey and Chase (1952) used a tadpole shaped T, bacteriophage that attacks the bacterium.
  2. They used radioactive S³⁵ and P³² (proteins get labelled with S³⁵ while DNA with p³²).
  3. Bacteria were grown in the medium containing these radioactive isotopes, S³⁵ and p³² separately.
  4. Then the bacteria were infected with phages as follows : 

A) Bacteria grown in S³⁵ medium

  1. The bacteria incorported S³⁵ into its proteins.
  2. The phages infecting these bacteria also became labeled with S³⁵.
  3. These S³⁵ labelled phages were grown on non-radioactive bacteria.
  4. After infection, the protein coats and the bacterial cells were separated by centrifugation and their radioactivity was measure.
  5. All the radioactivity was found to be associated with protein coats and none with the bacterial cell.
  6. This indicated that proteins of the phage had not entered the bacterial cell during infection.


B) Bacteria grown in P³² medium:

  1. These bacteria incorporated P³² into its DNA.
  2. The phages after being grown on these bacteria, also incorported P³².
  3. After infection with non radioactive bacteria, the protein coat and the bacteria were seperated.
  4. In this case, all the radioactivity was found in the bacteria rather than the protein coat.
  5. These experiments proved that only the phage DNA entered the bacterium.


Genetic Material


Prokaryotic cell Genetic Material 

The genetic material of prokaryotic cells is a double-stranded circular DNA molecule about 1 mm long. This circular DNA molecule is folded and packaged with the help of mainly proteins resulting in a final length in the cell of 1 μm. It contains a copy of the genome, so prokaryotic cells are haploid.

In many bacteria, in addition to the main circular DNA molecule, there are plasmids. Plasmids are double-stranded, circular DNA molecules of various sizes. They contain a small percentage of genetic information and make up 1-2% of bacterial DNA. A bacterium may contain one or more plasmids, which replicate independently of the bacterium's major DNA molecule. Among the genes contained in plasmids are antibiotic resistance genes and genes involved in the transfer of genetic material from one bacterium to another. Plasmids have the ability to exchange genetic material both with each other and with the bacterium's major DNA molecule, as well as to carry it from one bacterium to another. In this way they transform the bacterium into which they enter and give it new properties. Plasmids are a valuable tool of Genetic Engineering techniques. 


Eukaryotic cell Genetic material

The genetic material of eukaryotic cells is longer than that of prokaryotes. The total DNA present in each eukaryotic cell is not a single molecule, but consists of many linear molecules, the number and length of which are characteristic of different species of organisms. DNA molecules are packed with proteins to form chromatin fibrils. The total DNA in each human diploid cell is about 2 m long and clumps to such an extent that it fits in the nucleus, which is ten millionths of a meter in diameter!

In the electron microscope, after special treatment, the chromatin filaments look like bead rosaries. Each "bead" is called nucleosome and is the basic unit of organization of chromatin. The nucleosome consists of DNA of 146 base pairs and eight molecules  of proteins, called histones . The DNA is wrapped around the histone octamer. The nucleosomes fold, resulting in the DNA being packaged to a greater extent, eventually forming the chromatin fibrils. Other types of proteins are involved in the folding.

If we look at the genetic material of a eukaryotic cell, we see that it appears in different characteristic forms, depending on the stage of the cell cycle. During the mesophase the genetic material has a low degree of aggregation and forms a network of chromatin fibrils. As a result, the chromatin fibers are not visible as individual structures under the microscope. By the end of replication each chromatin fibril has doubled. The two copies of each fibril are linked together by a structure called a centriole. The term sister chromatidsis used to describe the duplicate chromosomes during the time period attached to the centromere.


Mitochondria and chloroplasts have their own genetic material

Mitochondria and chloroplasts havev their own DNA. The genetic material of mitochondria and chloroplasts contains information about their functions such as oxidative phosphorylation and photosynthesis respectively, and encodes a small number of proteins. But most proteins, which are necessary for the function of mitochondria and chloroplasts, are encoded by genes found in the DNA of the nucleus. This fact shows that these organelles are not independent of the cell nucleus and are therefore characterized as semi-autonomous.

The Mitochondrial DNA in most organisms is a circular molecule. Each mitochondrion contains two to ten copies of the circular DNA molecule. However, in some lower protozoa it is linear. The zygote of higher organisms contains only the mitochondria that come from the egg. Therefore, the origin of the mitochondrial genes is maternal. Chloroplast DNA is a circular molecule and is larger than mitochondrial DNA.


Viruses have DNA or RNA genetic material

These viruses contain a single type of nucleic acid which can be DNA or RNA. Virus DNA can be single-stranded or double-stranded, linear or circular. RNA viruses usually have linear RNA (in rare cases it is cyclic), which can be single-stranded or double-stranded. Viruses and their life cycle will be analyzed in the corresponding chapter.



Functions of Genetic Material

  1. DNA is the genetic material of all cells and most viruses. Some viruses have RNA (RNA-viruses) as their genetic material.
  2. The storage of genetic information. DNA (or RNA of viral RNAs) contains information that defines all the characteristics of an organism and which are organized into functional units, the genes .
  3. The preservation and transmission of genetic information from cell to cell and from organism to organism, ensured by DNA self-replication.
  4. The expression of genetic information, achieved by controlling the synthesis of proteins.
  5. The first step in expressing information in DNA is to transfer it to RNA through the transcription process . RNA, in turn, transmits information through the translation process to the proteins responsible for the structure and function of cells and, consequently, organisms.
  6. The DNA of an organism is the molecular "hard disk" that contains stored precise instructions, which determine the structure and function of the organism. At the same time it contains the information for its self-replication, thus ensuring the transmission of genetic instructions from a cell to its subsidiaries and from an organism to its offspring.