Jeffrey S. Buguliskis Ph.D. Technical Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

A GEN 35th Anniversary Retrospective

The influence that the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has had on modern molecular biology is nothing short of remarkable. This technique, which is akin to molecular photocopying, has been the centerpiece of everything from the OJ Simpson Trial to the completion of the Human Genome Project. Clinical laboratories use this DNA amplification method for infectious disease testing and tissue typing in organ transplantation. Most recently, with the explosion of the molecular diagnostics field and meteoric rise in the use of next-generation sequencing platforms, PCR has enhanced its standing as an essential pillar of genomic science.

Let’s open the door to the past and take a look back around 35 years ago when GEN started reporting on the relatively new disciplines of genetic engineering and molecular biology. At that time, GEN was among the first to hear the buzz surrounding a new method to synthesize and amplify DNA in the laboratory. In reviewing the fascinating history of PCR, we will see how the molecular diagnostics field took shape and where it could be headed in the future.

Some Like It Hot

The biological sciences rarely advance within a vacuum—rather they rely on previous discoveries to promote directly or indirectly our understanding. The contributions made by scientists in the field of molecular biology that contributed to the functional pieces of PCR were numerous and spread out over more than two decades.

It began with H. Gobind Khorana’s advances in understanding the genetic code, leading to the use of synthetic DNA oligonucleotides, continued through Kjell Kleepe’s 1971 vision of a two-primer system for replicating DNA segments, to Fredrick Sanger’s method of DNA sequencing—a process that would win him the Nobel prize in 1980—which utilized DNA oligo primers, nucleotide precursors, and a DNA synthesis enzyme.

All of the previous discoveries were essential to PCR’s birth, yet it would be an egregious mistake to begin a retrospective on PCR and not discuss the enzyme upon which the entire reaction hinges upon—DNA polymerase. In 1956, Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg and his colleagues discovered DNA polymerase (Pol I), in Escherichia coli. Moreover, the researchers described the fundamental process by which the polymerase enzyme copies the base sequence of a DNA template strand. However, it would take biologists another 20 years to discover a version of DNA polymerase that was stable enough for use for any meaningful laboratory purposes.

That discovery came in 1976 when a team of researchers from the University of Cincinnati described the activity of a DNA polymerase (Taq) they isolated from the extreme thermophile bacteria, Thermus aquaticus, which lives in hot springs and hydrothermal vents. The fact that this enzyme could withstand typical protein-denaturing temperatures and function optimally around 75–80°C fortuitously set the stage for the development of PCR.

By 1983, all of the ingredients to bake the molecular cake were sitting in the biological cupboard waiting to be assembled in the proper order. At that time, Nobel laureate Kary Mullis was working as a scientist for the Cetus Corporation trying to perfect oligonucleotide synthesis. Mullis stumbled upon the idea of amplifying segments of DNA using multiple rounds of replication and the two primer system—essentially modifying and expanding upon Sanger’s sequencing reaction. Mullis discovered that the temperatures for each step (melting, annealing, and extension) in the reaction would need to be painstakingly controlled by hand. In addition, he realized that since the reactions were using a non-thermostable DNA polymerase, fresh enzyme would need to be “spiked in” after each successive cycle.

Mullis’ hard work and persistence paid off as the reaction was successful at amplifying a particular segment of DNA that was flanked by two opposing nucleotide primer molecules. Two years later, the Cetus team presented their work at the annual meeting of the American Society for Human Genetics, and the first mention of the method was published in Science that same year; however, that article did not go into detail about the specifics of the newly developed PCR method—a paper that would be rejected by roughly 15 journals and would not be published until 1987.

Although scientists were a bit slow on the uptake for the new method, the researchers at Cetus were developing ways to improve upon the original assay. In 1986, the scientists substituted the original heat-liable DNA polymerase for the temperature-resistant Taq polymerase, removing the need to spike in enzyme and dramatically reducing errors while increasing sensitivity. A year later, PerkinElmer launched their creation of a thermal cycler, allowing scientists to regulate the heating and cooling parts of the PCR reaction with greater efficiency.

Extremely soon after the introduction of Taq and the launch of the thermal cycler, the PCR reaction exploded exponentially among research laboratories and not only vaulted molecular biology to the pinnacle of researcher interests, it also launched a molecular diagnostics revolution that continues today and shows no signs of slowing down.

Molecular Workhorse

In the years since PCR first burst onto the scene, there have been a number of significant advancements to the technique that have widely improved the overall method. For example, in 1991, a new DNA polymerase from the hyperthermophilic bacteria Pyrococcus furiosus, or Pfu, was introduced as a high-fidelity alternative enzyme to Taq. Unlike Taq polymerase, Pfu has built in 3′ to 5′ exonuclease proofreading activity, which allows the enzyme to correct nucleotide incorporation errors on the fly—dramatically increasing base specificity, albeit at a reduced rate of amplification versus Taq.

In 1995, two advancements were introduced to PCR users. The first, called antibody “hot-start” PCR, utilized an immunoglobulin molecule that is directed to the DNA polymerase and inhibits its activity until the first 95°C melt stage, denaturing the antibody and allowing the polymerase to become active. Although this process was effective in increasing the specificity of the PCR reaction, many researchers found that the technique was time consuming and often caused cross-contamination of samples.

The second innovation introduced that year began another revolution for molecular biology and the PCR method. Real-time PCR, or quantitative PCR (qPCR), allowed researchers to quantitatively create DNA templates for PCR amplification from RNA transcripts through the use of the reverse-transcriptase enzyme and specifically incorporated fluorescent reporter dyes. The technique is still widely used by researchers to monitor gene expression extremely accurately. Over the past 20 years, many companies have spent many R&D dollars to create more accurate, higher throughput, and simple qPCR machines to meet researcher demands.

With the advent of next-generation sequencing techniques—and the rise of techniques that started commanding the attention of more and more researchers—PCR machines and methods needed to evolve and modernize to keep pace. PCR remained the lynchpin in almost all the next-generation sequencing reactions that came along, but the traditional technique wasn’t nearly as precise as required.

Digital PCR (dPCR) was introduced as a refinement of the conventional method, with the first real commercial system emerging around 2006. dPCR can be used to quantify directly and clonally amplify DNA or RNA.

The apparatus carries out a single reaction within a sample. The sample, however, is separated into a large number of partitions. Moreover, the reaction is performed in each partition individually—allowing a more reliable measurement of nucleic acid content. Researchers often use this method for studying gene-sequence variations, such as copy number variants (CNV), point mutations, rare-sequence detection, and microRNA analysis, as well as for routine amplification of next-generation sequencing samples.

Future of PCR: Better, Faster, Stronger!

It is almost impossible to envision a future laboratory setting that wouldn’t utilize PCR in some fashion, especially due to the heavy reliance of next-generation sequencing techniques for accurate PCR samples and at the very least using the method as a simple amplification tool for creating DNA fragments of interest.

Yet there is at least one new next-generation sequencing technique that can identify native DNA sequences without an amplification step—nanopore sequencing. Although this technique has performed well in many preliminary trials, it is in its relative infancy. It will probably undergo additional development lasting several years before it approaches large-scale adoption by researchers. Even then, PCR has become so engrained into daily laboratory life that to try to phase out the technique would be like asking molecular biologists to give up their pipettes or restriction enzymes.

Most PCR equipment manufacturers continue to seek ways to improve the speed and sensitivity of their thermal cyclers, while biologists continue to look toward ways to genetically engineer better DNA polymerase molecules with even greater fidelity than their naturally occurring cousins. Whatever the new advancements are, and wherever they lead the life sciences field, you can count on us at GEN to continue to provide our readers with detailed information for another 35 years … at least!


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