An Idiots Guide to DNA barcoding - 2.

Genes are made of DNA, a long molecule that carries information (see figure).

This information is encoded in the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA, just as the sequence of the letters in words carries information on a page. The genes are like short instructions built up of the "letters" of the DNA alphabet. Put together, the entire set of these genes gives enough information to serve as an "instruction manual" of how to build and run an organism. The instructions spelled out by this DNA alphabet can be changed, however, by mutations, and this may alter the instructions carried within the genes. Within the cell, the genes are carried in chromosomes, which are packages for carrying the DNA, with the genes arranged along them like beads on a string. It is the reshuffling of the chromosomes that results in unique combinations of genes in offspring.

Although such mutations in DNA are random, natural selection is not a process of chance: the environment determines the probability of reproductive success. The end products of natural selection are organisms that are adapted to their present environments. Natural selection does not involve progress towards an ultimate goal. Evolution does not necessarily strive for more advanced, more intelligent, or more sophisticated life forms. For example, fleas (wingless parasites) are descended from a winged, ancestral scorpionfly, and snakes are lizards that no longer require limbs - although pythons still grow tiny structures that are the remains of their ancestor's hind legs. Organisms are merely the outcome of variations that succeed or fail, dependent upon the environmental conditions at the time.

The understanding of evolutionary biology began with the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.