Intramolecular base pairs can occur within single-stranded nucleic acids. This is particularly important in RNA molecules (e.g., transfer RNA), where Watson-Crick base pairs (guanine-cytosine and adenine-uracil) permit the formation of short double-stranded helices, and a wide variety of non-Watson-Crick interactions (e.g., G-U or A-A) allow RNAs to fold into a vast range of specific three-dimensional structures. In addition, base-pairing between transfer RNA (tRNA) and messenger RNA (mRNA) forms the basis for the molecular recognition events that result in the nucleotide sequence of mRNA becoming translated into the amino acid sequence of proteins via the genetic code.
The size of an individual gene or an organism's entire genome is often measured in base pairs because DNA is usually double-stranded. Hence, the number of total base pairs is equal to the number of nucleotides in one of the strands (with the exception of non-coding single-stranded regions of telomeres). The haploid human genome (23 chromosomes) is estimated to be about 3.2 billion bases long and to contain 20,000–25,000 distinct protein-coding genes. A kilobase (kb) is a unit of measurement in molecular biology equal to 1000 base pairs of DNA or RNA. The total amount of related DNA base pairs on Earth is estimated at 5.0 × 1037, and weighs 50 billion tonnes. In comparison, the total mass of the biosphere has been estimated to be as much as 4 TtC (trillion tons of carbon).
Hydrogen bonding is the chemical interaction that underlies the base-pairing rules described above. Appropriate geometrical correspondence of hydrogen bond donors and acceptors allows only the "right" pairs to form stably. DNA with high GC-content is more stable than DNA with low GC-content, but, contrary to popular belief, the hydrogen bonds do not stabilize the DNA significantly, and stabilization is mainly due to stacking interactions.
The larger nucleobases, adenine and guanine, are members of a class of double-ringed chemical structures called purines; the smaller nucleobases, cytosine and thymine (and uracil), are members of a class of single-ringed chemical structures called pyrimidines. Purines are complementary only with pyrimidines: pyrimidine-pyrimidine pairings are energetically unfavorable because the molecules are too far apart for hydrogen bonding to be established; purine-purine pairings are energetically unfavorable because the molecules are too close, leading to overlap repulsion. Purine-pyrimidine base pairing of AT or GC or UA (in RNA) results in proper duplex structure. The only other purine-pyrimidine pairings would be AC and GT and UG (in RNA); these pairings are mismatches because the patterns of hydrogen donors and acceptors do not correspond. The GU pairing, with two hydrogen bonds, does occur fairly often in RNA (see wobble base pair).
Paired DNA and RNA molecules are comparatively stable at room temperature but the two nucleotide strands will separate above a melting point that is determined by the length of the molecules, the extent of mispairing (if any), and the GC content. Higher GC content results in higher melting temperatures; it is, therefore, unsurprising that the genomes of extremophile organisms such as Thermus thermophilus are particularly GC-rich. On the converse, regions of a genome that need to separate frequently — for example, the promoter regions for often-transcribed genes — are comparatively GC-poor (for example, see TATA box). GC content and melting temperature must also be taken into account when designing primers for PCR reactions.
Chemical analogs of nucleotides can take the place of proper nucleotides and establish non-canonical base-pairing, leading to errors (mostly point mutations) in DNA replication and DNA transcription. This is due to their isosteric chemistry. One common mutagenic base analog is 5-bromouracil, which resembles thymine but can base-pair to guanine in its enol form.