DNA Sequencing and Fragment Analysis

Posts tagged ‘Genotyping’

Guidelines for Optimizing PCR: Introduction

The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is one of the more utilized protocols in the genetic sciences. The development of PCR has allowed researchers to amplify a specific region of genomic DNA. It has made it possible to amplify millions of copies of DNA. PCR applications have expanded to include sequencing, fragment analysis, real time PCR, chip arrays and other techniques. Although the design of many of the new technologies differs from basic PCR, they all use the same principle to amplify DNA.

The PCR procedure itself has changed little over the years. However, better polymerase enzymes for catalyzing the process have been developed. The thermocycler for heating and cooling has even been improved. PCR reactions consist of a premix composed of deoxynucleotides (dNTPs) to supply the necessary bases and Taq polymerase to catalyze the reaction mixed in a buffered medium. Then a template and markers (forward and reverse primers) are added. The template is the DNA to be amplified. The markers determine what region is amplified. This soup is then placed in a thermocycler to be heated and cooled which causes the DNA to be amplified.

One of the more difficult issues with PCR is to ensure that only a single region of DNA is being amplified so that copies of that region only are all that is produced. This requires adjustments in the PCR mix and in the thermocycling conditions to optimize the reaction. Secondary products often result when PCR conditions are not fully optimized. It is particularly important in fragment analysis applications when multiple groups of primers are added to the same mix in order to amplify different regions together in one reaction.

Variables in PCR Optimization

A typical PCR cycle is shown in Figure 1. The template and markers are added to a buffered solution containing Taq polymerase and dNTPS before the mixture is placed in the thermocycler. It is also important to note that the buffer includes magnesium chloride (MgCl2) as a necessary co-factor. A common cycle for PCR includes the denaturing step, the annealing step, and then the extension. The mix is first heated to approximately 95 C to denature the double stranded template. This opens up the DNA for the markers and Taq polymerase. After heating, the mixture is cooled to allow the markers to anneal to the complimentary region. Finally, the mix is heated slightly for extension. During extension, the polymerase moves along the template DNA incorporating dNTPs to produce a complimentary copy of the template. At the end of one cycle, an identical copy of the desired region is produced as a small PCR fragment. The newly produced fragment and the original template both function as template DNA for the next cycle in PCR amplification. After 25 cycles, millions of copies of a given region are produced and used for further study.


Once PCR amplification is complete, the PCR fragments can be tested for purity using agarose gel electrophoresis. Including a standard ladder with known fragment sizes provides an indication of the size of the amplified product as shown in Figure 2. Once PCR conditions are well optimized, the PCR product should appear as a clean single band. The presence of smaller secondary bands sometimes results from mis-priming when the PCR is not completely optimized. It is possible to gel purify a product by cutting the desired band from the gel and isolating the DNA using a commercial kit. However, even a single band can mask the presence of a secondary band. It is important to have a single clean product, particularly for additional testing such as automated DNA sequencing.


PCR can be Multiplexed

Multiplexing a PCR reaction is particularly useful in automated fragment analysis when different sets of markers carry a different fluorophore (fluorescent label). Multiplexing can provide savings in time and cost when a large number of samples are to be analyzed. Figure 3 shows the results for a fragment analysis application multiplexing 10 different markers. This is very common in forensic science where DNA fingerprinting typically multiplexes up to 16 different regions.


The next few articles will focus on the variables involved in basic PCR and how PCR can be optimized.

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Automated Fragment Analysis Improves Accuracy Over Manual Methods

Automated capillary sequencers are also capable of performing fragment analysis applications. The process is similar to sequencing because fluorescent dyes are used to label products amplified by PCR. Fragment analysis is often performed manually loading amplified products on agarose gel. It is a relatively simple and cost effective method for conducting fragment analysis. However, there are also limitations. First, there is no method for accurately calculating fragment sizes even with a size ladder. Second, multiplexing is not possible when product sizes from multiple primer pairs (markers) are similar in size. Finally, agarose gels does not have the resolution capabilities that capillary electrophoresis has. Capillary electrophoresis, used in forensics fingerprinting, provides remarkable accuracy to fragment analysis applications.

Automated Fragment Analysis Uses Color Fluorescent Dyes

The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) first amplifies samples that will be compared by fragment analysis. For manual applications, the forward and reverse primer are simply unlabeled oligonucleotides. For automated capillary equipment the forward primer contains a fluorescent label on the 5’end. The amplified product will also be labeled following PCR because the product includes both primers (figure 1). The forward and reverse primers (markers) determine the region and base pair size of the resulting amplification.

There are advantages to using fluorescent labels in the amplification process. Capillary analyzers recognize fluorescent emission wavelengths (different colors). This adds the capacity to multiplex more than one set of primers in an amplification reaction. For example, forensic science currently runs 16 separate markers in one multiplexed reaction. Markers are labeled with four different fluorescent dyes. Fragment sizes add a second parameter because fragments with the same dye, but amplified with different markers, never overlap.

A Standard is Added to Every Sample

Another parameter that increases accuracy and resolution in automated fragment analysis applications is the addition of a given standard to every sample. The base pair sizes of test samples are calculated using this standard. Motility variance that could occur from one capillary to the next is eliminated because a standard curve is determined for each capillary. Each fragment in the standard would need to be labeled with fluorescent dye. However, the standard uses a unique label not used for any of the samples, typically ROX or TAMRA.

Resolution of Automated Capillary Fragment Analysis is 1 Base Pair

The resolution capability of capillary fragment analysis is 1 base pair. The same technology that separates each base in sequencing is also applied to fragment analysis. A single base pair separation is nearly impossible using an agarose gel (figure 2). Fragment size accuracy is also limited by manual methods because there is no way to view the standard and sample fragments loaded in the same lane.

The introduction of slab gel sequencers improved capacity to perform fragment analysis over manual agarose methods. Development of capillary analyzers has brought greater sensitivity and speed to this well-established process. Very little genomic DNA is now required to perform automated fragment analysis. Although science has developed new methods for sequencing, fragment analysis still remains an efficient and cost effective method to analyze genomic variability; particularly related to genetic disease and forensics.

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