Molecular biology is a branch of biology which deals with the molecular basis of biological activity. It studies the synthesis of biomolecules such as nucleic acids and proteins and their interactions. The nucleic acids include DNA and RNA which are the source of genetic information. These nucleic acids together with proteins regulate the bioprocesses of the cell.
Fundamental courses on molecular biology include the structures of DNA and RNA, the replication of DNA, synthesis of RNA from DNA which is called transcription and synthesis of protein from RNA which is called translation. The DNA is coiled and supercoiled, to fit into the cell. The organisation of this molecule into chromosomes is a vast topic which is explained in great detail in the fundamental courses. The levels of organisation of eukaryotic chromosomes are not only essential but also exciting.
The central dogma of life explains a unidirectional flow of information from DNA to RNA to protein. However, with the discovery of reverse transcriptase enzyme, the central dogma has slightly been modified where information can also flow from RNA to DNA in some instances.
The contributions of different scientists to the present day knowledge of DNA as genetic material viz. the transformation, conjugation and transduction experiments are also significant and are included in the course. The DNA is chemically deoxyribonucleic acid which is a polymer of nucleotides with each nucleotide comprising of one of the four bases, namely adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine esterified to a sugar and phosphate group. The DNA exists in a double helical form comprising of two strands which are held together by hydrogen bonds. The sequence of these bases is responsible for all information. The detail of this structure was explained by James Watson and Francis Crick which fetched them a Nobel Prize in the year 1962. This piece of information paved way for further studies pertaining to mechanism of replication. It is a semiconservative mechanism, wherein one molecule of DNA gives rise to two molecules each comprising one old strand and one newly synthesized strand. The DNA also acts as a template for synthesis of RNA by a process called transcription. The RNA strand further directs the synthesis of proteins by a mechanism called translation. These three processes form essential aspects of molecular biology. The crucial element of protein synthesis is the genetic code wherein a set of three bases (called the codon) on the RNA codes for one amino acid in the protein. The genetic code is universal and comprises of 64 codons with 61 sense codons and 3 nonsense or termination codons which are responsible for termination of protein synthesis. The mechanisms of replication, transcription and translation are fundamentally same, however there occur slight variations in prokaryotes and eukaryotes
Gene transfer mechanisms in bacteria viz. transformation, conjugation and transduction are also covered under molecular biology. Recombination plays an essential role in nature. The variations in genetic material are necessary for the acquisition of new information. For example the resistance to certain antibiotics, the ability to secrete specific enzymes and utilise certain metabolites etc. can be passed on from one bacterium to another bacterium through these gene transfer mechanisms. Uptake of naked foreign DNA by the bacterium is transformation, the information being passed on from a cell containing plasmid to another cell which does not include a plasmid being in physical contact with one another is conjugation and the transfer of genetic material from one bacterium to another bacterium through a bacteriophage is called transduction. These mechanisms are essential because in higher organisms sexual reproduction contributes to recombination. The prokaryotes do not have such a provision.
Since genetic information is necessarily the blueprint of the cell, any change in the data can lead to dangerous consequences. Such changes in the genetic material which can be inherited are called mutations. Mutation forms another critical topic in molecular biology. The mutations can occur due to addition or deletion of bases, change of bases leading to the altered codon that either code for some other amino acid or is a termination codon. Mutations can be brought about by physical or chemical agents. The cell has specific repair mechanisms to combat the effect of mutations. However, it is not always possible, and that is how change contributes to evolution. The prokaryotic genomes have smaller genomes, and an entire genome has coding sequences. On the other hand, eukaryotic genomes are larger and have large sequences which do not code for anything. There are thousands of repetitive sequences which are now being studied and their regulatory roles being discovered.
Regulation of gene expression is also studied in molecular biology. The gene regulation in prokaryotes is examined under the operon concept where a single operator regulates a set of genes involved for example in a biochemical pathway. The operon concept does not exist in higher organisms.
Molecular biology as a course also includes specific techniques or protein purification and separation, DNA and RNA purification involving electrophoresis and blotting techniques.
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