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Any of the naturally occurring chemical compounds that are capable of being broken down to yield phosphoric acid, sugars, and a mixture of organic bases (purines and pyrimidines). Nucleic acids direct the course of protein synthesis, thereby regulating all cell activities. The two main types, DNA and RNA, are composed of similar materials but differ in structure and function. Both are long chains of repeating nucleotides. The sequence of purines and pyrimidines (bases)adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and either thymine (T; in DNA) or uracil (U; in RNA)in the nucleotides, in groups of three (triplets, or codons), constitutes the genetic code.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on nucleic acid, visit Britannica.com.