PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) is a revolutionary method developed by Kary Mullis in the 1980s. PCR is based on using the ability of DNA polymerase to synthesize new strand of DNA complementary to the offered template strand. Because DNA polymerase can add a nucleotide only onto a preexisting 3'-OH group, it needs a primer to which it can add the first nucleotide. This requirement makes it possible to delineate a specific region of template sequence that the researcher wants to amplify. At the end of the PCR reaction, the specific sequence will be accumulated in billions of copies (amplicons).
The PCR reaction requires the following components:
DNA template - the sample DNA that contains the target sequence. At the beginning of the reaction, high temperature is applied to the original double-stranded DNA molecule to separate the strands from each other.
DNA polymerase - a type of enzyme that synthesizes new strands of DNA complementary to the target sequence. The first and most commonly used of these enzymes is Taq DNA polymerase (from Thermis aquaticus), whereas Pfu DNA polymerase (from Pyrococcus furiosus) is used widely because of its higher fidelity when copying DNA. Although these enzymes are subtly different, they both have two capabilities that make them suitable for PCR: 1) they can generate new strands of DNA using a DNA template and primers, and 2) they are heat resistant.
Primers - short pieces of single-stranded DNA that are complementary to the target sequence. The polymerase begins synthesizing new DNA from the end of the primer.
Nucleotides (dNTPs or deoxynucleotide triphosphates) - single units of the bases A, T, G, and C, which are essentially "building blocks" for new DNA strands.
RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription PCR) is PCR preceded with conversion of sample RNA into cDNA with enzyme reverse transcriptase .
Limitations of PCR and RT-PCR:
The PCR reaction starts to generate copies of the target sequence exponentially. Only during the exponential phase of the PCR reaction is it possible to extrapolate back to determine the starting quantity of the target sequence contained in the sample. Because of inhibitors of the polymerase reaction found in the sample, reagent limitation, accumulation of pyrophosphate molecules, and self-annealing of the accumulating product, the PCR reaction eventually ceases to amplify target sequence at an exponential rate and a "plateau effect" occurs, making the end point quantification of PCR products unreliable. This is the attribute of PCR that makes Real-Time Quantitative RT-PCR so necessary.
Applications of PCR:
The development of PCR-based genetic (or DNA) fingerprinting protocols has seen widespread application in forensics:
• In its most discriminating form, Genetic fingerprinting can uniquely discriminate any one person from the entire population of the world. Minute samples of DNA can be isolated from a crime scene, and compared to that from suspects, or from a DNA database of earlier evidence or convicts. Simpler versions of these tests are often used to rapidly rule out suspects during a criminal investigation. Evidence from decades-old crimes can be tested, confirming or exonerating the people originally convicted.
• Less discriminating forms of DNA fingerprinting can help in Parental testing, where an individual is matched with their close relatives. DNA from unidentified human remains can be tested, and compared with that from possible parents, siblings, or children. Similar testing can be used to confirm the biological parents of an adopted (or kidnapped) child. The actual biological father of a newborn can also be confirmed (or ruled out).
PCR has been applied to many areas of research in molecular genetics:
• PCR allows rapid production of short pieces of DNA, even when nothing more than the sequence of the two primers is known. This ability of PCR augments many methods, such as generating hybridization probes for Southern or northern blot hybridization. PCR supplies these techniques with large amounts of pure DNA, sometimes as a single strand, enabling analysis even from very small amounts of starting material.
• The task of DNA sequencing can also be assisted by PCR. Known segments of DNA can easily be produced from a patient with a genetic disease mutation. Modifications to the amplification technique can extract segments from a completely unknown genome, or can generate just a single strand of an area of interest.
• PCR has numerous applications to the more traditional process of DNA cloning. It can extract segments for insertion into a vector from a larger genome, which may be only available in small quantities. Using a single set of 'vector primers', it can also analyze or extract fragments that have already been inserted into vectors. Some alterations to the PCR protocol can generate mutations (general or site-directed) of an inserted fragment.
• Sequence-tagged sites is a process where PCR is used as an indicator that a particular segment of a genome is present in a particular clone. The Human Genome Project found this application vital to mapping the cosmid clones they were sequencing, and to coordinating the results from different laboratories.
• An exciting application of PCR is the phylogenic analysis of DNA from ancient sources, such as that found in the recovered bones of Neanderthals, or from frozen tissues of Mammoths. In some cases the highly degraded DNA from these sources might be reassembled during the early stages of amplification.
• A common application of PCR is the study of patterns of gene expression. Tissues (or even individual cells) can be analyzed at different stages to see which genes have become active, or which have been switched off. This application can also use Q-PCR to quantitate the actual levels of expression.
• The ability of PCR to simultaneously amplify several loci from individual sperm has greatly enhanced the more traditional task of genetic mapping by studying chromosomal crossovers after meiosis. Rare crossover events between very close loci have been directly observed by analyzing thousands of individual sperms. Similarly, unusual deletions, insertions, translocations, or inversions can be analyzed, all without having to wait (or pay for) the long and laborious processes of fertilization, embryogenesis, etc.
PCR is also important in answering basic scientific questions. In the field of evolutionary biology, PCR has been used to establish relationships among species. In anthropology, it has been used to understand ancient human migration patterns. In archaeology, it has been used to help identify ancient human remains. Paleontologists have used PCR to amplify DNA from extinct insects preserved in amber for 20 million years. The Human Genome Project, which had a goal of determining the sequence of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome, relied heavily on PCR. The genes responsible for a variety of human diseases have been identified using PCR. For example, a PCR technique called multiplex PCR identifies a mutation in a gene in boys suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. PCR can also be used to search for DNA from foreign organisms such as viruses or bacteria.
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