Isolation of plasmid DNA in preparation for automated Sanger sequencing has been simplified by the development of commercial kits. The quality of the final sample is generally tested by spectrophotometer measuring absorbance at wavelengths 260 nm and 280 nm. A ratio value of 1.8 calculated for absorbance measurements at 260 nm by 280 nm indicates the DNA sample is good. However, 260 nm and 280 nm absorbance values do not provide a complete profile of whether DNA preparations meet necessary quality standards for Sanger sequencing applications. Samples may still fail. There are a number of reasons why sequencing reactions are not successful. Two well-known techniques eliminate template quality as a reason for failure.
Scanning Spectrophotometry Provides Important Information about Template Quality
Nanodrop technology has the advantage of highly sensitive spectrophotometric scanning of DNA samples using just 1 ul of volume. Most spectrophotometers available today are capable of performing a wavelength absorbance scan in the ultra violet spectrum. DNA is scanned between wavelengths ranging from 220 nm to 320 nm. The scan profile for quality DNA is shown in figure 1.
A typical DNA profile is a Gaussian (bell-shaped) curve with the maximum peak height absorbing at 260 nm. A secondary peak will also begin to form around 220 nm. Deviations in the shape of either curve could indicate the presence of salts or other contaminants.
Figure 2 provides a profile of plasmid DNA containing salts compared to clean DNA. The Gaussian curve should drop almost to the baseline when DNA is free of contaminating salts in the range 230 nm to 240 nm. Salts present in the sample will absorb wavelengths in this range. Excessive amounts of salt in DNA samples may show little or no dip in the curve between 220 nm and 260 nm.
Figure 3 represents a profile of DNA that contains either protein (DNA from tissue) or phenol (plasmid DNA). Phenol residue in DNA can result from phenol/ chloroform extraction (a method of extraction that was widely used prior to the development of commercial kits). Despite the availability of kit-based methods, many researchers opt to use phenol/ chloroform instead. It is important to remove phenol residues with ethanol precipitation in the final purification step. Phenol residue can negatively affect the PCR amplification in Sanger sequencing.
Scanning spectrophotometry successfully identifies salt contaminants in plasmid DNA and DNA samples amplified in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). PCR fragments will have a lower concentration. But purified PCR products should still show a scan similar to plasmid preparations.
Agarose Gel Electrophoresis Identifies Nicked DNA
Once plasmid DNA has been determined to be free from salt contaminants it should work well for Sanger sequencing. However, this is not always the end result. Scanning spectrophotometry does not reveal whether DNA is supercoiled or nicked as described previously (Nicked Plasmid DNA Prevents Automated Sanger Sequencing). Nicked DNA has been damaged mechanically. Aggressive vortexing during DNA purification is one cause of DNA damage. Nicked DNA does not amplify in Sanger sequencing applications because the double stranded helix does not maintain a tight formation. Taq polymerase is unable to fulfill a lock-key attachment to the DNA and catalyze extension. For automated sequencing to work, plasmid DNA must maintain a supercoiled structure.
Agarose gel electrophoresis successfully separates nicked DNA (slow migrating) and supercoiled (fast migrating) as shown in figure 4. Nicked DNA moves more slowly through the gel because it is a larger molecule than supercoiled DNA. It should be noted that plasmid preparations typically have a mixture of nicked and supercoiled DNA. Presence of some nicked DNA should not cause concern. It is the lack of supercoiled DNA that causes sequencing failures.
Scanning spectrophotometry and agarose gel electrophoresis combined provide a good assessment of whether template DNA purification has been successful. However, it does not guarantee Sanger sequencing will be successful every time. Primer selection, GC content and presence of poly base regions and hairpins could also affect sequencing. Problems of this nature are related more to base content and not preparation of the sample.