Ribonucleic acid (RNA) conveys genetic information and catalyzes important biochemical reactions. Similar, but not identical, to a single strand of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), in some lower organisms, RNA replaces DNA as the genetic material. As with DNA, RNA follows specific base pairing rules, except that in RNA the base uracil replaces the base thymine (i.e., instead of an adenine-thymine or A-T pairing, there is an adenine-uracil or A-U pairing). Accordingly, when RNA acts as a carrier of genetic information, uracil replaces thymine in the genetic code.
In humans, messenger RNA (mRNA) is the product of transcription and acts to convey genetic information from the nucleus to the protein assembly complex at the ribosome. The ribsome is composed of ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and other proteins. Transfer RNAs (tRNA) act to catalyze the translation process by acting as carriers of specific amino acids. Because tRNAs bind to specific sites on the strand of mRNA, the sequence of amino acids subsequently inserted into the synthesized protein is both specific and genetically determined by the nucleotide sequence in DNA from which the mRNA strand was originally transcribed.
Other forms of RNA perform important roles in other biochemical reactions. Regardless of function, RNA is a biopolymer made up of ribonucleotide units and is present in all living cells and some viruses. The chemical units of RNA are ribonucleotide monomers consisting of a ribose sugar (C5H10O5) phosphorylated at the third carbon (C3) and linked to one of four bases through a type of chemical linkage formed between a sugar and a base by a condensation reaction (glycosidic bond). The four bases found in RNA are adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and uracil (U). Other bases may also be found, although they are generally modified versions of these four (e.g., methylated bases are found in parts of tRNA).
The single nucleotides (monomers) of RNA form a linear chain by linking their phosphate groups and sugars in phosphodiester bonds. RNA does not form a double stranded alpha-helix as does DNA. In some parts of the RNA molecule, there is folding into alpha-helical-like regions. Corresponding to their unique functions, messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA), and transfer RNA (tRNA) all have different three-dimensional structures. In higher eukaryotic organisms, different RNAs are found distributed throughout the cell—in the nucleus, cytoplasm, and also in cytoplasmic organelles such as mitochondria and, in plants, chloroplasts.
The nucleus is the chief site of RNA synthesis and the source of all cytoplasmic RNA, while mitochondria and chloroplasts synthesize their RNA from their own DNA. rRNA is synthesized by the nucleoli within the nucleus, while the high molecular weight precursor to cytoplasmic mRNA, sometimes termed heterogeneous nuclear or hnRNA, is transcribed on the DNA chromatin. Low molecular weight RNA also occurs in the nucleus and consists partly of tRNA and partly of RNA, which has a regulatory function in gene activation. The cytoplasm contains tRNA and rRNA in the ribosomes and mRNA in polysomes, or polyribosomes. The latter are the structural units of protein biosynthesis, consisting of several ribosomes attached to a strand of mRNA.
The function of mRNA is to transcribe the information held in DNA. In the cells of eukaryotic organisms, the first transcriptional product is the long, heterogenous nuclear RNA, or hnRNA. This contains both the nucleotide sequences eventually transcribed into polypeptides and large tracts of sequences not translated. Nontranslated sequences are termed introns (or intervening sequences). Removal of introns, and other untranslated portions of the molecule, edits hnRNA into mRNA molecules. After editing removes as much as 90% of hnRNA, the resulting mRNA molecules are transported into the cytoplasm.
rRNA is located within ribosomes, the sites of protein biosynthesis. Ribosomes are large ellipsoid cytoplasmic organelles consisting of RNA and protein.
tRNA, the smallest known functional RNA, is essential for protein biosynthesis. Its purpose is to transfer a specific amino acid from the cytoplasm and incorporate it into the growing polypeptide chain on the polysome. Different tRNAs contain between 70 and 85 nucleotides. The most characteristic feature of tRNA is that it contains the anticodon, a sequence of three nucleotides specific for the mRNA codon sequence. There is at least one tRNA per cell bearing the anticodon for each of the 20 amino acids. The aminoacyl-tRNA (the tRNA carrying the amino acid) binds to the large subunit of a ribosome, where antiparallel basepairing occurs between the anti-codon of the tRNA and the complementary codon of the associated mRNA. The specificity of this base pairing ensures that the amino acid inserts into the correct position in the growing protein polypeptide chain. During translation, the deacylated tRNA (i.e., with its amino acid removed) is released from the ribosome and becomes available once again for recharging with its amino acid.
DNA-dependent RNA synthesis is the process of RNA sythesis on a template of DNA. According to the rules of base pairing, the base sequence of DNA determines the synthesis of a complementary base sequence
in RNA. Assisted (catalyzed) by the enzyme RNA polymerase, the growing RNA chain releases from the template so that the process can start again, even before the previous molecule is complete. Termination codons and a termination factor known as rho-factor end the synthesis process. In certain viruses, RNA-dependent RNA synthesis occurs, with the viral RNA acting as a template for the synthesis of new RNA.