If the nucleotide sequences at the ends of a particular DNA region are known, the intervening fragment can be amplified directly by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Here we describe the basic PCR technique and three situations inwhich it is used.

The PCR depends on the ability to alternately denature (melt) double-stranded DNA molecules and renature (anneal) complementary single strands in a controlled fashion. As in the membrane-hybridization assay described earlier, the presence of noncomplementary strands in a mixture has little effect on the base pairing of complementary single DNA strands or complementary regions of strands. The second requirement for PCR is the ability to synthesize oligonucleotides at least 18–20 nucleotides long with a defined sequence. Such synthetic nucleotides can be readily produced with automated instruments based on the standard reaction scheme.

A typical PCR procedure begins by heat-denaturation of a DNA sample into single strands. Next, two synthetic oligonucleotides complementary to the 3′ ends of the target DNA segment of interest are added in great excess to the denatured DNA, and the temperature is lowered to 50–60 C. These specific oligonucleotides, which are at a very high concentration, will hybridize with their complementary sequences in the DNA sample, whereas the long strands of the sample DNA remain apart because of their low concentration. The hybridized oligonucleotides then serve as primers for DNA chain synthesis in the presence of deoxynucleotides (dNTPs) and a temperature-resistant DNA polymerase such as that from Thermus aquaticus (a bacterium that lives in hot springs).

This enzyme, called Taq polymerase, can remain active even after being heated to 95 C and can extend the primers at temperatures up to 72 C. When synthesis is complete, the whole mixture is then heated to 95 C to melt the newly formed DNA duplexes. After the temperature is lowered again, another cycle of synthesis takes place because excess primer is still present. Repeated cycles of melting (heating) and synthesis (cooling) quickly amplify the sequence of interest. At each cycle, the number of copies of the sequence between the primer sites is doubled; therefore, the desired sequence increases exponentially—about a million-fold after 20 cycles—whereas all other sequences in the original DNA sample remain unamplified.

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