What is the advantage gained by the substitution of thymine for uracil in DNA? I have read previously that it is due to thymine being "better protected" and therefore more suited to the storage role of DNA, which seems fine in theory, but why does the addition of a simple methyl group make the base more well protected?
One major problem with using uracil as a base is that cytosine can be deaminated, which converts it into uracil. This is not a rare reaction; it happens around 100 times per cell, per day. This is no major problem when using thymine, as the cell can easily recognize that the uracil doesn't belong there and can repair it by substituting it by a cytosine again.
There is an enzyme, uracil DNA glycosylase, that does exactly that; it excises uracil bases from double-stranded DNA. It can safely do that as uracil is not supposed to be present in the DNA and has to be the result of a base modification.
Now, if we would use uracil in DNA it would not be so easy to decide how to repair that error. It would prevent the usage of this important repair pathway.
The inability to repair such damage doesn't matter for RNA as the mRNA is comparatively short-lived and any potential errors don't lead to any lasting damage. It matters a lot for DNA as the errors are continued through every replication. Now, this explains why there is an advantage to using thymine in DNA, it doesn't explain why RNA uses uracil. I'd guess it just evolved that way and there was no significant drawback that could be selected against, but there might be a better reason (more difficult biosynthesis of thymine, maybe?).
You'll find a bit more information on that in "Molecular Biology of the Cell" from Bruce Alberts et al. in the chapter about DNA repair (from page 267 on in the 4th edition).
The existence of thymine in DNA instead of uracil is apparently due to evolution process which made DNA more stable.
Thymine has greater resistance to photochemical mutation, making the genetic message more stable. A rough explanation of why thymine is more protected then uracil, can be found in the article
Arthur M, L., Why does DNA contain thymine and RNA uracil? Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1969. 22(3): p. 537-540.
which gives three major reasons for it to happen:
"Excitation energy in DNA is mobile, and is eventually transferred to thymine residues, which are the sites of radiation damage."
"Uracil but not thymine forms a stable photohydration product. The dimerization of thymine can be partially photoreversed by irradiation at relatively longer wavelengths, while this process is less effective for uracil dimers because of the competing photohydration reaction"
"Photochemical mutation is, or at least was at one time, a serious problem, since there exists a series of enzymes to repair radiation damage. Therefore resistance to radiation damage was an important selective advantage."
Thymine has a greater resistance to photochemical mutation, making the genetic message more stable. This offers a rough explanation of why thymine is more protected then uracil.
However, the real question is: Why does thymine replace uracil in DNA? The important thing to notice is that while uracil exists as both uridine (U) and deoxy-uridine (dU), thymine only exists as deoxy-thymidine (dT). So the question becomes: Why do cells go to the trouble of methylating uracil to thymine before it can be used in DNA? and the easy answer is: methylation protects the DNA.
Besides using dT instead of dU, most organisms also use various enzymes to modify DNA after it has been synthesized. Two such enzymes,
dcm methylate adenines and cytosines, respectively, along the entire DNA strand. This methylation makes the DNA unrecognizable to many nucleases (enzymes which break down DNA and RNA), so that it cannot be easily attacked by invaders, like viruses or certain bacteria. Obviously, methylating the nucleotides before they are incorporated ensures that the entire strand of DNA is protected.
Thymine also protects the DNA in another way. If you look at the components of nucleic acids, phosphates, sugars, and bases, you see that they are all very hydrophilic (water soluble). Obviously, adding a hydrophobic (water insoluble) methyl group to part of the DNA is going to change the characteristics of the molecule. The major effect is that the methyl group will be repelled by the rest of the DNA, moving it to a fixed position in the major groove of the helix. This solves an important problem with uracil - though it prefers adenine, uracil can base-pair with almost any other base, including itself, depending on how it situates itself in the helix. By tacking it down to a single conformation, the methyl group restricts uracil (thymine) to pairing only with adenine. This greatly improves the efficiency of DNA replication, by reducing the rate of mismatches, and thus mutations.