In the two families of nucleic acids, ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA or RNA codes for the structure of proteins synthesized in the cell. The nucleotide adenosine triphosphate (ATP) supplies the driving force of many metabolic processes. Several nucleotides are coenzymes; they act with enzymes to speed up (catalyze) biochemical reactions.

The nitrogen-containing bases of nearly all nucleotides are derivatives of three heterocyclic compounds: pyrimidine, purine, and pyridine. The most common nitrogen bases are the pyrimidines (cytosine, thymine, and uracil), the purines (adenine and guanine), and the pyridine nicotinamide.

The nucleotides are of great importance to living organisms, as they are the building blocks of nucleic acids, the substances that control all hereditary characteristics.