The Nucleic Acid Probing


DNA probes can be used to confirm the presence of a suspected pathogen in patient samples. This diagram illustrates how a DNA probe can be used to search for a gene of interest associated with the suspected pathogen.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

DNA molecules are small, and the information contained in their sequence is invisible. How does a researcher isolate a particular stretch of DNA, or having isolated it, determine what organism it is from, what its sequence is, or what its function is? One method to identify the presence of a certain DNA sequence uses artificially constructed pieces of DNA called probes. Probes can be used to identify different bacterial species in the environment and many DNA probes are now available to detect pathogens clinically. For example, DNA probes are used to detect the vaginal pathogens Candida albicans, Gardnerella vaginalis, and Trichomonas vaginalis.

To screen a genomic library for a particular gene or sequence of interest, researchers must know something about that gene. If researchers have a portion of the sequence of DNA for the gene of interest, they can design a DNA probe, a single-stranded DNA fragment that is complementary to part of the gene of interest and different from other DNA sequences in the sample. The DNA probe may be synthesized chemically by commercial laboratories, or it may be created by cloning, isolating, and denaturing a DNA fragment from a living organism. In either case, the DNA probe must be labeled with a molecular tag or beacon, such as a radioactive phosphorus atom (as is used for autoradiography) or a fluorescent dye (as is used in fluorescent in situ hybridization, or FISH), so that the probe and the DNA it binds to can be seen. The DNA sample being probed must also be denatured to make it single-stranded so that the single-stranded DNA probe can anneal to the single-stranded DNA sample at locations where their sequences are complementary. While these techniques are valuable for diagnosis, their direct use on sputum and other bodily samples may be problematic due to the complex nature of these samples. DNA often must first be isolated from bodily samples through chemical extraction methods before a DNA probe can be used to identify pathogens.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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