A single-stranded non-circular DNA molecule has two non-identical ends, the 3' end and the 5' end (usually pronounced "three prime end" and "five prime end"). The numbers refer to the numbering of carbon atoms in the deoxyribose, which is a sugar forming an important part of the backbone of the DNA molecule. In the backbone of DNA the 5' carbon of one deoxyribose is linked to the 3' carbon of another by a phosphate group. The 5' carbon of this deoxyribose is again linked to the 3' carbon of the next, and so forth.
When a molecule of DNA is double stranded, as DNA usually is, the two strands run in opposite directions. Therefore, one end of the molecule will have the 3' end of strand 1 and the 5' end of strand 2, and vice versa in the other end. However, the fact that the molecule is two stranded allows numerous different variations.
The simplest case of an overhang is a single nucleotide. This is most often adenosine and is created as a 3' overhang by some DNA polymerases. Most commonly this is used in cloning PCR products created by such an enzyme. The product is joined with a linear DNA molecule with 5' thymine overhangs. Since adenine and thymine form a base pair, this facilitates the joining of the two molecules by a ligase, yielding a circular molecule. Here is an example of an A-overhang:
Longer overhangs are called cohesive ends or sticky ends. They are most often created by restriction endonucleases when they cut DNA. Very often they cut the two DNA strands four base pairs from each other, creating a four-base 3' overhang in the other molecule and a complementary 5' overhang in the other. These ends are called cohesive since they are easily joined back together by a ligase. Also, since different restriction endonucleases usually create different overhangs, it is possible to cut a piece of DNA with two different enzymes and then join it with another DNA molecule with ends created by the same enzymes. Since the overhangs have to be complementary in order for the ligase to work, the two molecules can only join in one orientation. This is often highly desirable in molecular biology.
For example, these two "sticky" ends are compatible:
5'-ATCTGACT + GATGCGTATGCT-3'
They can form complementary base pairs in the overhang region: