Understanding the Double-Helix Structure of DNA

DNA Double Helix
DNA Double Helix.

Andrey Prokhorov / Getty Images

In biology, "double helix" is a term used to describe the structure of DNA. A DNA double helix consists of two spiral chains of deoxyribonucleic acid. The shape is similar to that of a spiral staircase. DNA is a nucleic acid composed of nitrogenous bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine), a five-carbon sugar (deoxyribose), and phosphate molecules. The nucleotide bases of DNA represent the stair steps of the staircase, and the deoxyribose and phosphate molecules form the sides of the staircase.

Key Takeaways

  • Double helix is the biological term that describes the overall structure of DNA. Its double helix consists of two spiral chains of DNA. This double helix shape is often visualized as a spiral staircase.
  • The twisting of DNA is the result of both hydrophilic and hydrophobic interactions between the molecules that comprise DNA and water in a cell.
  • Both the replication of DNA and the synthesis of proteins in our cells are dependent on the double-helix shape of DNA.
  • Dr. James Watson, Dr. Francis Crick, Dr. Rosalind Franklin, and Dr. Maurice Wilkins all played pivotal roles in elucidating the structure of DNA.

Why Is DNA Twisted?

DNA is coiled into chromosomes and tightly packed in the nucleus of our cells. The twisting aspect of DNA is a result of interactions between the molecules that make up DNA and water. The nitrogenous bases that comprise the steps of the twisted staircase are held together by hydrogen bonds. Adenine is bonded with thymine (A-T) and guanine pairs with cytosine (G-C). These nitrogenous bases are hydrophobic, meaning that they lack an affinity for water. Since the cell cytoplasm and cytosol contain water-based liquids, the nitrogenous bases want to avoid contact with cell fluids. The sugar and phosphate molecules that form the sugar-phosphate backbone of the molecule are hydrophilic, which means they are water-loving and have an affinity for water.

DNA is arranged such that the phosphate and the sugar backbone are on the outside and in contact with fluid, while the nitrogenous bases are in the inner portion of the molecule. In order to further prevent the nitrogenous bases from coming into contact with cell fluid, the molecule twists to reduce space between the nitrogenous bases and the phosphate and sugar strands. The fact that the two DNA strands that form the double helix are anti-parallel helps to twist the molecule as well. Anti-parallel means that the DNA strands run in opposite directions, ensuring that the strands fit tightly together. This reduces the potential for fluid to seep between the bases.

DNA Replication and Protein Synthesis

DNA is transcribed and translated to produce proteins. ttsz / iStock / Getty Images Plus 

The double-helix shape allows for DNA replication and protein synthesis to occur. In these processes, the twisted DNA unwinds and opens to allow a copy of the DNA to be made. In DNA replication, the double helix unwinds and each separated strand is used to synthesize a new strand. As the new strands form, bases are paired together until two double-helix DNA molecules are formed from a single double-helix DNA molecule. DNA replication is required for the processes of mitosis and meiosis to occur.

In protein synthesis, the DNA molecule is transcribed to produce an RNA version of the DNA code known as messenger RNA (mRNA). The messenger RNA molecule is then translated to produce proteins. In order for DNA transcription to take place, the DNA double helix must unwind and allow an enzyme called RNA polymerase to transcribe the DNA. RNA is also a nucleic acid but contains the base uracil instead of thymine. In transcription, guanine pairs with cytosine and adenine pairs with uracil to form the RNA transcript. After transcription, the DNA closes and twists back to its original state.

DNA Structure Discovery

Dr. Francis Crick and Dr. James Watson
Dr. Francis Crick and Dr. James Watson at a Molecular Biology Symposium. Ted Spiegel / Contributor / Getty Images

Credit for the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA has been given to James Watson and Francis Crick, awarded a Nobel Prize for their work. Determining the structure of DNA was based in part on the work of many other scientists, including Rosalind Franklin. Franklin and Maurice Wilkins used X-ray diffraction to ascertain clues about the structure of DNA. The X-ray diffraction photo of DNA taken by Franklin, named "photograph 51," showed that DNA crystals form an X shape on X-ray film. Molecules with a helical shape have this type of X-shape pattern. Using evidence from Franklin's X-ray diffraction study, Watson and Crick revised their earlier proposed triple-helix DNA model to a double-helix model for DNA.

Evidence discovered by biochemist Erwin Chargoff helped Watson and Crick discover base-pairing in DNA. Chargoff demonstrated that the concentrations of adenine in DNA are equal to that of thymine, and concentrations of cytosine are equal to guanine. With this information, Watson and Crick were able to determine that the bonding of adenine to thymine (A-T) and cytosine to guanine (C-G) form the steps of the twisted-staircase shape of DNA. The sugar-phosphate backbone forms the sides of the staircase.


  • “The Discovery of the Molecular Structure of DNA—The Double Helix.” Nobelprize.org, www.nobelprize.org/educational/medicine/dna_double_helix/readmore.html.
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Bailey, Regina. "Understanding the Double-Helix Structure of DNA." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/double-helix-373302. Bailey, Regina. (2023, April 5). Understanding the Double-Helix Structure of DNA. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/double-helix-373302 Bailey, Regina. "Understanding the Double-Helix Structure of DNA." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/double-helix-373302 (accessed June 10, 2023).