The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)


The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to produce many copies of a specific sequence of DNA.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

Most methods of DNA analysis, such as restriction enzyme digestion and agarose gel electrophoresis, or DNA sequencing require large amounts of a specific DNA fragment. In the past, large amounts of DNA were produced by growing the host cells of a genomic library. However, libraries take time and effort to prepare and DNA samples of interest often come in minute quantities. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) permits rapid amplification in the number of copies of specific DNA sequences for further analysis. One of the most powerful techniques in molecular biology, PCR was developed in 1983 by Kary Mullis while at Cetus Corporation. PCR has specific applications in research, forensic, and clinical laboratories, including:

• determining the sequence of nucleotides in a specific region of DNA
• amplifying a target region of DNA for cloning into a plasmid vector
• identifying the source of a DNA sample left at a crime scene
• analyzing samples to determine paternity
• comparing samples of ancient DNA with modern organisms
• determining the presence of difficult to culture, or unculturable, microorganisms in humans or environmentalsamples

PCR is an in vitro laboratory technique that takes advantage of the natural process of DNA replication. The heat-stable DNA polymerase enzymes used in PCR are derived from hyperthermophilic prokaryotes. Taq DNA polymerase, commonly used in PCR, is derived from the Thermus aquaticus bacterium isolated from a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. DNA replication requires the use of primers for the initiation of replication to have free 3ʹ-hydroxyl groups available for the addition of nucleotides by DNA polymerase. However, while primers composed of RNA are normally used in cells, DNA primers are used for PCR. DNA primers are preferable due to their stability, and DNA primers with known sequences targeting a specific DNA region can be chemically synthesized commercially. These DNA primers are functionally similar to the DNA probes used for the various hybridization techniques described earlier, binding to specific targets due to complementarity between the target DNA sequence and the primer.

PCR occurs over multiple cycles, each containing three steps: denaturation, annealing, and extension. Machines called thermal cyclers are used for PCR; these machines can be programmed to automatically cycle through the temperatures required at each step. First, double-stranded template DNA containing the target sequence is denatured at approximately 95 °C. The high temperature required to physically (rather than enzymatically) separate the DNA strands is the reason the heat-stable DNA polymerase is required. Next, the temperature is lowered to approximately 50 °C. This allows the DNA primers complementary to the ends of the target sequence to anneal (stick) to the template strands, with one primer annealing to each strand. Finally, the temperature is raised to 72 °C, the optimal temperature for the activity of the heat-stable DNA polymerase, allowing for the addition of nucleotides to the primer using the single-stranded target as a template. Each cycle doubles the number of double-stranded target DNA copies. Typically, PCR protocols include 25–40 cycles, allowing for the amplification of a single target sequence by tens of millions to over a trillion.

Natural DNA replication is designed to copy the entire genome, and initiates at one or more origin sites. Primers are constructed during replication, not before, and do not consist of a few specific sequences. PCR targets specific regions of a DNA sample using sequence-specific primers. In recent years, a variety of isothermal PCR amplification methods that circumvent the need for thermal cycling have been developed, taking advantage of accessory proteins that aid in the DNA replication process. As the development of these methods continues and their use becomes more widespread in research, forensic, and clinical labs, thermal cyclers may become obsolete.


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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