There are a number of situations in which a researcher might want to physically separate a collection of DNA fragments of different sizes. A researcher may also digest a DNA sample with a restriction enzyme to form fragments. The resulting size and fragment distribution pattern can often yield useful information about the sequence of DNA bases that can be used, much like a bar-code scan, to identify the individual or species to which the DNA belongs.
Gel electrophoresis is a technique commonly used to separate biological molecules based on size and biochemical characteristics, such as charge and polarity. Agarose gel electrophoresis is widely used to separate DNA (or RNA) of varying sizes that may be generated by restriction enzyme digestion or by other means, such as the PCR.
Due to its negatively charged backbone, DNA is strongly attracted to a positive electrode. In agarose gel electrophoresis, the gel is oriented horizontally in a buffer solution. Samples are loaded into sample wells on the side of the gel closest to the negative electrode, then drawn through the molecular sieve of the agarose matrix toward the positive electrode. The agarose matrix impedes the movement of larger molecules through the gel, whereas smaller molecules pass through more readily. Thus, the distance of migration is inversely correlated to the size of the DNA fragment, with smaller fragments traveling a longer distance through the gel. Sizes of DNA fragments within a sample can be estimated by comparison to fragments of known size in a DNA ladder also run on the same gel. To separate very large DNA fragments, such as chromosomes or viral genomes, agarose gel electrophoresis can be modified by periodically alternating the orientation of the electric field during pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). In PFGE, smaller fragments can reorient themselves and migrate slightly faster than larger fragments and this technique can thus serve to separate very large fragments that would otherwise travel together during standard agarose gel electrophoresis. In any of these electrophoresis techniques, the locations of the DNA or RNA fragments in the gel can be detected by various methods. One common method is adding ethidium bromide, a stain that inserts into the nucleic acids at non-specific locations and can be visualized when exposed to ultraviolet light. Other stains that are safer than ethidium bromide, a potential carcinogen, are now available.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology