PCR is a method used to prepare billions of copies of specific DNA sequences. It is often necessary to have a larger number of copies of the specific DNA sequence than that found in a typical sample to analyze DNA for its base-pair sequence or length. In addition, the PCR reaction is highly specific, meaning that it will only produce copies of a desired sequence from the template (sample) DNA. This specificity is ensured by the primers, which are designed to be complementary and anneal to specific regions on each side of the DNA region of interest (target region). These features make PCR a powerful technique to be used, for instance, in genotyping of markers, before sequencing, or in various DNA tests.

3 steps of PCR reaction. Step 1, calle denaturation, presents two parallel, horizontally aligned blue arrows. Upper arrow points to the right and has its left end marked as 5 prime, and its right end marked as 3 prime. Lower arrow points to the left and has its left end marked as 3 prime, and its right end marked as 5 prime. Step 2, called annealing, presents the same arrows, still parallelly, horizontally aligned, but now separated further from each other. Two small, yellow arrows align to each of them near the 3 prime ends, and point towards the opposite directions than to which the blue arrows are pointing. Step 3, called extension, presents the same arrows, but now the yellow ones are replaced with red arrows, which have the same length as the original blue ones. From here, the cycle repeats the steps two times, separating arrows of opposite direction, annealing new ones and extending them, to create new complementary strands.

PCR steps

To prepare billions of DNA copies, many repeated cycles of DNA synthesis are performed in one PCR tube. Each cycle includes three distinct steps defined by the temperature (Figure 1). All cycles are performed without intervention in a PCR machine, which can change automatically the temperature to create the steps.

  1. Denaturation step (95ºC): At this high temperature, the hydrogen bonds holding together the two DNA strands are broken, and the DNA strands fall apart. The single-stranded DNA is now available for copying.
  2. Annealing step (54ºC): At 54 celcius degrees, short DNA pieces called primers bind at complementary sites of the template DNA. The primers define the target sequence, which is the specific region of DNA that will be copied. Annealing temperature is calculated from the primer composition (the number of nucleotides as well as number of guanine and cytosine). Normally, you would need to calculate the optimal annealing temperature for each primer. In this case, we consider 54 celcius degrees as the annealing
  3. Extension step (72ºC): At 72 celcius degrees, an enzyme called DNA polymerase is responsible for copying DNA. It recognizes the 3′ end of a primer bound to a template strand and starts copying the template DNA.

By the end of one cycle, parts of the initial DNA strands have been doubled in number. By the end of, e.g., 30 cycles, usually performed in PCR, at least 1 billion (230) copies of the target sequence will be present in the tube. For performing PCR, you need to add a thermostable DNA polymerase, nucleotides, primers, and DNA you want to use as your template.

PCR reagents

  • Primers: Primers will bind at a specific DNA sequence and mark the beginning of DNA amplification.
  • Nucleotides: Nucleotides are required to build the new DNA sequence.
  • Polymerase: Polymerase is an enzyme that assembles the nucleotides on the basis of the template sequence.
  • Template DNA: A template is required to be the basis of new DNA sequence amplification.

When preparing for a PCR experiment, you must be extra careful of potential contamination. PCR is a very powerful technique to amplify DNA. This means that if you have a tiny contamination (for example, DNA coming from other sample), this DNA can also be amplified, competing with the original template and destroying your experiment results. To prevent contamination, you need to always use gloves and work in a very clean environment (change the pipette tips when you are pipetting from a different container, tie your hair, do not cough or sneeze around the PCR workbench, and others).

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