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When there is an error in copying DNA (a mutation), what exactly goes wrong?

If G goes with C and A goes with T, I don't see how that part can mess up.

Is the idea that when the double helix is split, an A gets ruined and replaced with a G by mistake, which then pairs with a C in one of the copies? So something that was supposed to be AT is now GC.

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There are many way in which DNA can be damaged. As already pointed out in the comment by @skymninge, the Wikipedia page on DNA repair, as well as the mutation page detail some of the things that can go wrong.

You say:

If G goes with C and A goes with T, I don't see how that part can mess up.

This, however, would imply that the four bases are completely different so that mispairing cannot exist. This is (may I add luckily?) not true.
Indeed the chemical structure of the bases is very similar, and changes between one base and another (transversions and transitions) are common.

Transversions and transitions

These can result for instance from exposure to external agents such as ionizing radiation and alkylating agents, or from exposure to endogenous products such as reactive oxygen species.

Furthermore, the enzyme synthetizing DNA, called DNA polymerase, can insert the wrong base, although most of these errors can be corrected by its "proof-reading mechanisms". However, it is estimated that

the frequency at which human DNA undergoes lasting, uncorrected errors range from $1 * 10^{-4}$ to $1 * 10^{-6}$ mutations per gamete for a given gene.

Source: Nature Scitable

So, in summary, the system is not perfect, and mutation can be introduced even endogenously. This may seem bad, but, at least for relatively small rates of mutation, is not, as it allows change in the population, which is the basis for evolution.

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  • $\begingroup$ just to clarify, youre saying a C can transition into a T sometimes? or, are you saying a C can pair with a T sometimes? or both? btw, thanks! $\endgroup$ – tau Mar 17 '14 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ Transitions are transformations between purines or between pyrimidines (that is C becoming a T or viceversa and A becoming a G or viceversa). Transversions are between a purine and a pirimidine (the red arrows in the picture). You can also have so called "wobble pairings" or "non Watson-Crick pairings" such as C-C, T-G, A-C. $\endgroup$ – nico Mar 17 '14 at 17:06
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Pyrimidine dimers are another example that cause errors is replication. Though this generally results in premature attenuation of replication, and not mispairing. Still a messup, and the primary cause of the skin cancer melanoma. Another is the incorporation of 8-oxo-Guanine residues. This paper is a good review of DNA mutations http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22525/

8-oxo-Guanine wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/8-Oxoguanine

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