DNA Replication
How DNA Makes Copies of Itself

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Figure 1

Before a cell divides, its DNA is replicated (duplicated.) Because the two strands of a DNA molecule have complementary base pairs, the nucleotide sequence of each strand automatically supplies the information needed to produce its partner.  If the two strands of a DNA molecule are separated, each can be used as a pattern or template to produce a complementary strand.  Each template and its new complement together then form a new DNA double helix, identical to the original.  

Before replication can occur, the length of the DNA double helix about to be copied must be unwoundIn addition, the two strands must be separated, much like the two sides of a zipper, by breaking the weak hydrogen bonds that link the paired bases.   Once the DNA strands have been unwound, they must be held apart to expose the bases so that new nucleotide partners can hydrogen-bond to them. 
The enzyme DNA polymerase then moves along the exposed DNA strand, joining newly arrived nucleotides into a new DNA strand that is complementary to the template. Figure 1 shows the process part way through. 


Replication occurs differently on antiparallel strands of DNA.

The process starts with a short strand of DNA that binds by pairing its nucleotide bases to those in the DNA strand to be replicated. This "primer" has an exposed sugar molecule at its end. From there on, DNA polymerase can continuously synthesize the growing complementary strand.  This strand of DNA is called the leading strand.  A nice little animation of DNA synthesis on the leading strand can be seen at the Nobel Prize e-museum site at http://www.nobel.se/medicine/educational/dna/a/replication/replication_ani.html.

On the complementary side of the DNA molecule, the primer would have a phosphate not a sugar at its exposed end; new nucleotides can only join to a sugar end. To get around this problem, this strand is synthesized in small pieces backward from the overall direction of replication.  This strand is called the lagging strandThe short segments of newly assembled DNA from which the lagging strand is built are called Okazaki fragments. As replication proceeds and nucleotides are added to the sugar end of the Okazaki fragments, they come to meet each other.  The whole thing is then stitched together by another enzyme called DNA ligase.  The Nobel e-museum also has an animation of this process at http://www.nobel.se/medicine/educational/dna/a/replication/lagging_ani.html .

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Figure 2

 Replication occurs simultaneously at multiple places along a DNA strand.

Because human DNA is so very long (with up to 80 million base pairs in a chromosome) it unzips at multiple places along its length so that the replication process is going on simultaneously at hundreds of places along the length of the chain.  Eventually these areas run together to form a complete chain.  In humans, DNA is copied at about 50 base pairs per second. The process would take a month (rather than the hour it actually does) without these multiple places on the chromosome where replication can begin.

 DNA replication is extraordinarily accurate.

DNA polymerase makes very few errors, and most of those that are made are quickly corrected by DNA polymerase and other enzymes that "proofread" the nucleotides added into the new DNA strand.  If a newly added nucleotide is not complementary to the one on the template strand, these enzymes remove the nucleotide and replace it with the correct one.  With this system, a cell's DNA is copied with less than one mistake in a billion nucleotidesThis is equal to a person copying 100 large (1000 page) dictionaries word for word, and symbol for symbol, with only one error for the whole process!

Figure 1) http://www.genome.gov/Pages/Hyperion//DIR/VIP/Glossary/Illustration/dna_replication.shtml
Figure 2) http://berget.mcs.cmu.edu/education/TechTeach/replication/purvCh11/RepFork.gif

material adapted from http://www.contexo.info/DNA_Basics/