DNA Replication

DNA Replication

  • When James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953, they simultaneously envisioned a mechanism for DNA replication. Their original statement emphasized the connection between the structure and replication:

"It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material" (Watson and Crick, 1953). 

  •     Watson and Crick's scheme suggested a mechanism where the two strands of the DNA molecule would separate, serving as templates for the synthesis of new complementary strands. 

Semiconservative DNA Replication:

1. Strand Separation: The first step in DNA replication involves the separation of the two DNA strands. This is achieved by breaking the hydrogen bonds between the complementary base pairs (A with T, and G with C), resulting in the unwinding of the double helix. 

2. Template for Synthesis: Each separated DNA strand acts as a template for the synthesis of a new complementary strand. DNA polymerases, specialized enzymes, move along the template strands and add complementary nucleotides to form the new strands. 

3. Complementary Base Pairing: During replication, adenine (A) pairs with thymine (T), and guanine (G) pairs with cytosine (C), following the base-pairing rules. 

4. Resulting DNA Molecules: After replication is complete, each DNA molecule consists of one parental strand and one newly synthesized strand. This is why it's termed "semiconservative replication." 



Significance of Semiconservative Replication:

1. Accuracy: The complementary base pairing ensures the accuracy of DNA replication. Each new DNA molecule is an exact copy of the original. 

2. Genetic Continuity: Semiconservative replication ensures that genetic information is faithfully passed from one generation to the next. 

3. Variability: While the basic genetic information remains the same, mutations can arise during replication, providing variability and raw material for evolution. 

4. Central Dogma: Semiconservative replication is a crucial step in the Central Dogma of molecular biology, where genetic information flows from DNA to RNA to protein. 

Meselson and Stahl's Experiment

 In 1958, Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl conducted an experiment that provided conclusive evidence for semiconservative DNA replication. 


1. Isotopic Labeling: They began by growing Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria in a medium containing 15NH4Cl, where 15N is the heavy isotope of nitrogen. This labeled the DNA with heavy nitrogen (15N) during several generations. 

2. Centrifugation in CsCl Gradient: To distinguish the heavy DNA from the normal DNA, they used cesium chloride (CsCl) density gradient centrifugation. The heavy DNA, due to its higher density, would settle at a different level in the gradient compared to the normal DNA. 

3. Switch to 14NH4Cl Medium: After many generations in the heavy nitrogen medium, they transferred the E. coli cells into a medium containing normal 14NH4Cl.

 4. Sampling and DNA Extraction: At specific time intervals as the cells multiplied, they took samples and extracted the DNA. 


1. 20 Minutes After Transfer (1st Generation): The DNA extracted from the culture one generation (20 minutes) after the transfer from 15N to 14N medium showed an intermediate density. This DNA was a hybrid, containing both heavy and light nitrogen. 

2. 40 Minutes After Transfer (2nd Generation): DNA extracted from the culture after another generation (40 minutes, 2nd generation) was composed of equal amounts of the intermediate (hybrid) DNA and 'light' DNA, containing only normal nitrogen (14N). 

Calculating Proportions:

If E. coli were allowed to grow for 80 minutes (4 generations), the proportions of light and hybrid densities in the DNA would be as follows:

  • After 20 minutes: 50% hybrid, 50% light
  • After 40 minutes: 25% hybrid, 75% light
  • After 60 minutes: 12.5% hybrid, 87.5% light
  • After 80 minutes: 6.25% hybrid, 93.75% light



  • Meselson and Stahl's experiment provided compelling evidence for semiconservative DNA replication. The observation of hybrid DNA in the first generation and subsequent dilution of heavy nitrogen in subsequent generations supported the idea that during replication, each DNA molecule retains one original (parental) strand and synthesizes a new complementary strand. 
  • Similar experiments involving the use of radioactive thymidine confirmed the semiconservative replication of DNA in chromosomes of other organisms, such as Vicia faba (faba beans). 

This experiment played a pivotal role in confirming the mechanism by which DNA faithfully duplicates itself during cell division, ensuring the transmission of genetic information. 

The Machinery and the Enzymes

 In the process of DNA replication within living cells, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), several key enzymes and factors are involved to ensure accurate and efficient duplication of the DNA molecule. 

Machinery and enzymes involved in DNA replication: 

1. DNA-Dependent DNA Polymerase:

  • DNA replication relies on the action of enzymes known as DNA-dependent DNA polymerases.
  • These enzymes use a DNA template strand to catalyze the polymerization of deoxynucleotides, forming a complementary strand.
  • DNA polymerases are highly efficient, as they need to synthesize a large number of nucleotides rapidly. For example, E. coli, which has around 4.6 × 10^6 base pairs, completes replication in just 18 minutes.
  • The polymerization rate of DNA polymerases is approximately 2000 base pairs per second.

 2. Accuracy in Replication:

  •  DNA polymerases also need to ensure high fidelity during replication to prevent mutations.
  • Mistakes during replication can lead to genetic mutations with potentially detrimental consequences.
  • High fidelity is essential to maintain the integrity of genetic information.

 3. Energy Source:

  • Deoxyribonucleoside triphosphates (dNTPs), which serve as the substrates for DNA synthesis, also provide the energy required for the polymerization reaction.
  • The two terminal phosphates in dNTPs contain high-energy phosphate bonds, similar to those in ATP (adenosine triphosphate). 

4. Replication Fork:

  • In long DNA molecules, the entire length of both DNA strands cannot be separated simultaneously due to the high energy requirement.
  •  Replication occurs within a small opening of the DNA double helix called the replication fork.
  • DNA polymerases can catalyze polymerization only in one direction, from 5' to 3'. 

5. Continuous and Discontinuous Synthesis:

  • Due to the polarity of DNA, replication is continuous on one template strand (the one with polarity 3' to 5') and discontinuous on the other (with polarity 5' to 3').
  • The fragments synthesized discontinuously are known as Okazaki fragments.
  • These fragments are later joined together by the enzyme DNA ligase to form a continuous strand. 

6. Origin of Replication:

  •  DNA replication does not start randomly at any location in the DNA molecule.
  • Specific regions in the DNA are designated as origins of replication.
  •  In E. coli, there are defined origins of replication where the replication process initiates.
  • Origins of replication are crucial for the start of the replication process.

 7. Coordination with Cell Cycle:

  • In eukaryotes, DNA replication occurs during the S-phase of the cell cycle.
  • Coordination between DNA replication and the cell division cycle is vital.
  • Failures in this coordination can lead to chromosomal anomalies, such as polyploidy, where cells have abnormal numbers of chromosomes.

 Understanding the machinery and enzymes involved in DNA replication is essential for the faithful transmission of genetic information and the maintenance of genetic integrity during cell division.

 These processes are highly regulated and complex, ensuring that the genetic material is accurately copied to be passed on to daughter cells during cell division.

 Replication fork

The replication fork is a critical structure in DNA replication, where the DNA double helix unwinds and separates into two single strands, allowing for the synthesis of new complementary strands. Let's explore the structure and function of the replication fork in detail:

 Structure of the Replication Fork:

  • Origin of Replication: DNA replication begins at a specific site known as the origin of replication. In prokaryotes like Escherichia coli (E. coli), there's one primary origin, while eukaryotes may have multiple origins of replication. 
  • Helicase: At the origin of replication, an enzyme called helicase unwinds the DNA double helix by breaking the hydrogen bonds between complementary base pairs. This action creates two single-stranded DNA templates. 
  • Single-Strand DNA-Binding Proteins: To prevent the single-stranded DNA from re-forming double-stranded regions or becoming susceptible to degradation, single-strand DNA-binding proteins (SSBs) bind to and stabilize the exposed single strands. 
  • Topoisomerase: As the DNA unwinds, it can become overwound or supercoiled ahead of the replication fork. Topoisomerases relieve this tension by creating temporary breaks in the DNA strands. 
  • Primase: The next step involves the synthesis of short RNA primers complementary to the single-stranded DNA templates. Primase is the enzyme responsible for creating these RNA primers.



Function of the Replication Fork:

  • Primer Synthesis: Primase adds short RNA primers (around 10-12 nucleotides long) complementary to the single-stranded DNA templates. These primers provide a starting point for DNA synthesis. 
  • DNA Polymerase: DNA polymerases, such as DNA polymerase III in E. coli, can only synthesize DNA in the 5' to 3' direction. DNA polymerase III binds to the RNA primers and elongates the new DNA strand in a complementary fashion. 
  • Leading and Lagging Strands: The replication fork consists of two strands with different polarities. The leading strand can be synthesized continuously in the same direction as the fork's movement (5' to 3'). In contrast, the lagging strand is synthesized in fragments, known as Okazaki fragments, in the opposite direction of the fork's movement (3' to 5').
  •  Okazaki Fragment Synthesis: DNA polymerase III synthesizes short stretches of the lagging strand called Okazaki fragments. Each fragment starts with its own RNA primer. DNA polymerase I then replaces the RNA primers with DNA and seals the fragments together. 
  •  Ligase: The nicks or gaps between Okazaki fragments need to be sealed to create a continuous DNA strand. DNA ligase is the enzyme responsible for joining the fragments by catalyzing the formation of phosphodiester bonds. 
  • Continuous DNA Synthesis: On the leading strand, DNA synthesis occurs continuously as DNA polymerase III follows the replication fork. 
  • Synchronization: Both leading and lagging strand synthesis must be synchronized to ensure that the newly synthesized DNA remains complementary to the template strands.