In many databases, the DNA sequences for proteins are given as a string of a,t,g,c without specifying whether the starting is from 5' or from 3'. Also it is not specified if it is the coding or non coding strand.

Is it because all the sequences are written from 5' to 3' of coding strand only?


2 Answers 2



It is indeed the convention to represent nucleic acid sequences in the 5ʹ to 3ʹ direction.

This is implied in the IUPAC/IUB document on Abbreviations and Symbols for Nucleic Acids, Polynucleotides and their Constituents, although not stated explicitly — presumably because this was written in 1974, before the large nucleic acid databases were established.


In general you can assume nothing about which strand a particular feature is located on. You need to refer to the context or documentation for the particular database that you are using.

I prefer the term ‘sense strand’ to ‘coding strand’ as explained in another post. However this only has meaning in a restricted set of circumstances relating to mRNA, particularly considering cDNA copies of eukaryotic mRNAs. Only if the context indicates that this is the case can you assume the strand presented as a ‘sense strand’.

The problem arises from the fact that for all (or almost all) genomes, different genes are located on different strands of the DNA — the chromosome has no unique ‘sense strand’ or ‘coding strand’. Thus, for DNA sequences in a database such as Genbank, the following are possible:

  • The DNA sequence presented does not encode protein or structural RNA.
  • The DNA sequence presented contains genes on both strands.

An example of the latter is given in the Sample GenBank Record which should be consulted to understand the feature annotation in DNA sequence entries in GenBank. This 5028 bp yeast chromosome entry encodes two genes. The first, AXL2, is annotated:

 gene            687..3158

The second, REV7, is annotated:

 gene            complement(3300..4037)

This indicates that, when presented in the 5ʹ to 3ʹ direction, the gene REV7 lies on the complement of the strand presented.

  • $\begingroup$ @ArjunDevdas If this answered your question, you can mark it as accepted by clicking the checkmark. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Mar 20, 2018 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ Awesome statement "the chromosome has no unique ‘sense strand’ or ‘coding strand’ ". Actually there are loads of such misconceptions around DNA. Another almost similar misinterpretation is to write "In DNA, one strand is 3' to 5' and another strand is 5' to 3' ". It makes sense only if we write "3' to 5' left to right". Otherwise there is neither a such "3' to 5' strand", nor there is any "5' to 3' strand". $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Jun 11, 2018 at 10:11

The convention is to provide the sense strand from 5’ to 3’.


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