I have a friend familiar with evolutionary biology who was recently bragging about how much he knows. I asked him what DNA stood for, and he answered it stood for 'deoxyribose nucleic acid'. When I claimed it stood for deoxyribonucleic acid, he said it depends on the source you go by. I was curious and decided to look into it, but the only source I could find using his answer was the paper "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid" published in the 1950s, and no explanation regarding if and when the term was officially changed. Can anyone shed light on the history of the term and explain if deoxyribose nucleic acid is still acceptable?

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    $\begingroup$ DNA is not an acronym. It is an initialism. $\endgroup$ – deebeedubya Oct 24 '16 at 3:30

First off, that paper is the seminal discovery and publication of the structure of DNA, and is absolutely worth the read. It's one of the most important pieces of scientific literature.

The short answer is no. DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic Acid.

The long answer is... this is really just picking at nits.1 DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, is a type of nucleic acid, specifically a deoxyribose nucleic acid. So, if your or your friend wants to be pedantic, you can call DNA a type of deoxyribose nucleic acid that stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.

You probably shouldn't, though, since if you really want to be pedantic, saying "deoxyribose" implies it's a sugar, which once it has formed the DNA backbone, it no longer technically is. Watson and Crick clearly used the phrase your friend has, but suffice to say that British papers from the 1950s used language differently than most folks today.

As a side note, there are nucleic acid analogues, such as PNA and LNA, which generally use the "Whatever Nucleic Acid" construct for naming, but I suspect that's mostly because "peptide" is a broad category, and "locked" isn't actually a biological word.

Also, "it depends on the source you go by" is just a way of getting out of being wrong.

ETA: WYSIWYG correctly notes in the comments that it used to be called desoxyribonucleic acid, such as in this extremely important paper by Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty.

1: See what I did there? Most people would say "nitpicking" but "picking at nits" is basically the same thing, even if almost nobody says it.


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