PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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What is PCR (polymerase chain reaction)?

PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is a method to analyze a short sequence of DNA (or RNA) even in samples containing only minute quantities of DNA or RNA. PCR is used to reproduce (amplify) selected sections of DNA or RNA. Previously, amplification of DNA involved cloning the segments of interest into vectors for expression in bacteria, and took weeks. But now, with PCR done in test tubes, it takes only a few hours. PCR is highly efficient in that untold numbers of copies can be made of the DNA. Moreover, PCR uses the same molecules that nature uses for copying DNA:

  • Two "primers", short single-stranded DNA sequences that are synthesized to correspond to the beginning and ending of the DNA stretch to be copied;
  • An enzyme called polymerase that moves along the segment of DNA, reading its code and assembling a copy; and
  • A pile of DNA building blocks that the polymerase needs to make that copy.

How is PCR (polymerase chain reaction) done?

As illustrated in the animated picture of PCR, three major steps are involved in a PCR. These three steps are repeated for 30 or 40 cycles. The cycles are done on an automated cycler, a device which rapidly heats and cools the test tubes containing the reaction mixture. Each step -- denatauration (alteration of structure), annealing (joining), and extension -- takes place at a different temperature:

  1. Denaturation: At 94 C (201.2 F), the double-stranded DNA melts and opens into two pieces of single-stranded DNA.
  2. Annealing: At medium temperatures, around 54 C (129.2 F), the primers pair up (anneal) with the single-stranded "template" (The template is the sequence of DNA to be copied.) On the small length of double-stranded DNA (the joined primer and template), the polymerase attaches and starts copying the template.
  3. Extension: At 72 C (161.6 F), the polymerase works best, and DNA building blocks complementary to the template are coupled to the primer, making a double stranded DNA molecule.

With one cycle, a single segment of double-stranded DNA template is amplified into two separate pieces of double-stranded DNA. These two pieces are then available for amplification in the next cycle. As the cycles are repeated, more and more copies are generated and the number of copies of the template is increased exponentially.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/14/2015

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