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Genetics Unzipped: Heat, Stick, Duplicate, Repeat: The Story Of The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

Posted by , on 5 November 2020

Illustration of DNA replicationIn this episode we’re taking a look at the story and the characters behind one of the most transformative – and ubiquitous – techniques in modern molecular biology: the polymerase chain reaction.

Anyone who has worked with DNA in the laboratory is undoubtedly familiar with the polymerase chain reaction – PCR, as it’s usually known. Invented in 1985, PCR is an indispensable molecular biology tool that can replicate any stretch of DNA, copying it billions of times in a matter of hours, providing enough DNA to use in sequencing or further research, or for applications like forensics, genetic testing, ancient DNA analysis or medical diagnostics.

It’s hard to overstate the transformation that PCR brought to the world of molecular biology and biomedical research. Suddenly, researchers could amplify and study DNA in a way that had been simply impossible before, kickstarting the genetic revolution that’s still going strong today. But where did this revolutionary technology come from? Officially, PCR was invented in 1985 by a colourful character called Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery, but, as we’ll see, all the components of PCR were in place by the early 1980s – it just took a creative leap to assemble them into one blockbusting technique.

  • Image: Illustration depicting semi-conservative DNA replication. Three generations of DNA are shown. After separation of the DNA double helix, two new complementary DNA strands are synthesised (indicated by a new colour). Complementary base pairing and hydrogen bonding results in formation of a new double helix. Credit: Susan LockhartAttribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from The Genetics Society. Full transcript, links and references available online at GeneticsUnzipped.com.

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