Nucleotide Definition, Structure, and Function

Nucleotide Definition
A nucleotide is an organic molecule made of a nitrogenous base, pentose sugar, and phosphate group.

Nucleotides are ubiquitous in biology, serving as the foundation of genetic material and fulfilling other essential roles in cells. Take a look at what a nucleotide is, its structure, and its function in biological processes.

What Is a Nucleotide?

A nucleotide is an organic molecule that serves as the building block for nucleic acids like DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid). These molecules consist of three primary components: a nitrogenous base, a sugar molecule, and one or more phosphate groups. The sequence of nucleotides within a nucleic acid strand encodes genetic information, which serves as a blueprint for the functioning of living organisms.

Why Are Nucleotides Important?

Nucleotides are vital for a multitude of functions within biological systems:

  1. Genetic Information Storage: DNA, which is composed of nucleotides, contains the genetic instructions required for the development and functioning of living organisms.
  2. Protein Synthesis: RNA, another nucleotide-based molecule, plays a crucial role in translating the genetic code into proteins.
  3. Energy Transfer: Certain nucleotides like ATP (adenosine triphosphate) act as energy carriers within cells.
  4. Signal Transduction: Nucleotides like cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate) serve as second messengers in signal transduction pathways.

Nucleotide Structure

A nucleotide consists of three primary components: a nitrogenous base, a sugar, and one or more phosphate groups.

Nitrogenous Base

This is a molecule containing nitrogen atoms involved in hydrogen bonding. There are two categories of nitrogenous bases:

  • Purines: Adenine (A) and Guanine (G)
  • Pyrimidines: Cytosine (C), Thymine (T), and Uracil (U)

Sugar Molecule

The sugar is a pentose (five-carbon) sugar. In DNA, this is 2′-deoxyribose. In RNA, the sugar is ribose.

Phosphate Groups

One or more phosphate groups are esterified to the sugar molecule at the 5′ carbon.

The sugar and the nitrogenous base together form a nucleoside. When one or more phosphate groups add to a nucleoside, the result is a nucleotide.


  • The nitrogenous base attaches to the sugar’s 1′ carbon.
  • The phosphate group attaches to the sugar’s 5′ carbon.

Nucleotide Names and Acronyms

Nucleotides exist in different forms depending on the number of phosphate groups:

  1. Monophosphate: AMP (Adenosine Monophosphate), CMP (Cytidine Monophosphate), etc.
  2. Diphosphate: ADP (Adenosine Diphosphate), CDP (Cytidine Diphosphate), etc.
  3. Triphosphate: ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), CTP (Cytidine Triphosphate), etc.

Nucleosides vs Nucleotides

A nucleoside is a compound that consists of a nitrogenous base and a sugar molecule, lacking the phosphate group(s). It becomes a nucleotide when it gains one or more phosphate groups. Nucleosides play a role in cellular metabolism and are the structural subunits from which nucleotides are synthesized.

Synthesis of Nucleotides

Nucleotide synthesis in the body occurs through two primary pathways:

  1. De Novo Pathway: New nucleotides are synthesized from amino acids, carbon dioxide, and formate.
  2. Salvage Pathway: Recycled bases and nucleosides are used to create new nucleotides.

The choice between the pathways depends on the availability of substrates and the energy cost involved.

Nucleotides in DNA vs RNA

The nucleotides in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid) serve as the basic building blocks for these two types of nucleic acids, which play vital roles in genetics and function of the cell.


  1. Basic Structure: Both DNA and RNA nucleotides have three primary components: a sugar, a phosphate group, and a nitrogenous base.
  2. Nitrogenous Bases: Both types contain adenine (A), guanine (G), and cytosine (C) as some of their nitrogenous bases.
  3. Phosphate Group: The phosphate groups in both DNA and RNA nucleotides are identical and serve as the connection point for forming the nucleic acid backbone.
  4. Genetic Function: Both DNA and RNA nucleotides are essential for storing and transmitting genetic information.
  5. Synthesis: Both types of nucleotides can be synthesized through de novo and salvage pathways in the cell.


  1. Sugar Component: DNA nucleotides contain deoxyribose sugar, while RNA nucleotides contain ribose sugar. The difference lies in a single oxygen atom missing in the sugar of DNA.
  2. Nitrogenous Bases: DNA contains thymine (T) as one of its nitrogenous bases, while RNA contains uracil (U). Essentially, RNA substitutes uracil for the thymine found in DNA.
  3. Stability: DNA is more stable than RNA due to the absence of a hydroxyl group at the 2′ carbon in the sugar component, which makes RNA more susceptible to hydrolysis.
  4. Form: DNA usually exists as a double-stranded helix, whereas RNA is generally single-stranded.
  5. Biological Roles: DNA primarily serves as a long-term storage form of genetic information, while RNA acts to carry out this information for various cellular tasks, including protein synthesis as mRNA, structural roles as rRNA, and functional roles as tRNA and other small RNAs.
  6. Location: DNA is primarily found in the cell nucleus in eukaryotes, while RNA can be found throughout the cell.

Nucleotide Functions

Beyond being the building blocks of nucleic acids, nucleotides perform various other functions in cells:

  1. Energy Currency: ATP serves as the primary energy currency of the cell.
  2. Enzyme Activity: Nucleotides like NADH and FADH₂ are cofactors in enzymatic reactions.
  3. Cell Signaling: cAMP and cGMP serve as second messengers.
  4. Regulation: Nucleotides like ATP and GTP regulate protein synthesis and other cellular activities.

Other Nucleotide Uses

Nucleotides also have various applications in biotechnology, medicine, food science, and more.

Biotechnology and Research

  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR): Nucleotides are essential for PCR, a technique that amplifies DNA for various applications like genetic testing, forensics, and research.
  • DNA Sequencing: Nucleotides are employed in methods like Sanger sequencing to determine the sequence of DNA.
  • Synthetic Biology: Nucleotides are the building blocks of artificial genes and even entire genomes.

Medical Applications

  • Antiviral and Anticancer Drugs: Some drugs mimic the structure of nucleotides and integrate into the DNA or RNA of pathogens or cancer cells, disrupting their life cycle. Examples include antiviral medications like AZT and anticancer drugs like 5-fluorouracil.
  • Dietary Supplements: Adding nucleotides to infant formulas and health supplements potentially supports immune function and gastrointestinal health.
  • Diagnostic Tests: Nucleotide-based probes help detect specific DNA or RNA sequences, aiding in disease diagnosis.

Food Science

  • Food Flavoring: Nucleotides like inosine monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine monophosphate (GMP) are flavor enhancers, especially in synergy with monosodium glutamate (MSG). They confer a umami taste.
  • Food Preservation: Nucleotides are natural preservatives due to their potential antimicrobial properties.

Environmental Science

  • Bioremediation: Engineered nucleotide sequences help microorganisms break down environmental pollutants.
  • DNA Barcoding: This uses short nucleotide sequences for species identification, which is crucial for biodiversity studies and conservation efforts.


  • Cosmetics: Some skincare products incorporate nucleotides to claim benefits of DNA repair, although the efficacy of such products is still under investigation.
  • Agriculture: Nucleotide sequences may play a role in plant disease resistance. They also find use in the genetic modification of crops for improved yield and pest resistance.


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