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Importance of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) in Fish Disease Diagnosis

*Debtanu Barman1, Vikash Kumar2, Suvra Roy2, Abhay Kumar2, Manik Datta2, Ratnadeep Saha2

1Center for Aquaculture Research & Development, St. Xavier's Vocational Training Center, Don Bosco, Bishramganj, Tripura, India

2Central Institute of Fisheries Education (Deemed University), Mumbai, India

*Corresponding author:, Mobile- +919774624291

The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique widely used in molecular biology. It derives its name from one of its key components, a DNA polymerase used to amplify a piece of DNA by in vitro enzymatic replication. As PCR progresses, the DNA generated is used as a template for replication. This sets in motion a chain reaction in which the DNA template is exponentially amplified. With PCR it is possible to amplify a single or few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating millions or more copies of the DNA piece.

PCR can be extensively modified to perform a wide array of genetic manipulations. Almost all PCR applications employ a heat-stable DNA polymerase, such as Taq polymerase, an enzyme originally isolated from the bacterium Thermus aquaticus. This DNA polymerase enzymatically assembles a new DNA strand from DNA building blocks, the nucleotides, by using single-stranded DNA as a template and DNA oligonucleotides (also called DNA primers), which are required for initiation of DNA synthesis. The vast majority of PCR methods use thermal cycling, i.e., alternately heating and cooling the PCR sample to a defined series of temperature steps. These thermal cycling steps are necessary to physically separate the strands (at high temperatures) in a DNA double helix (DNA melting) used as the template during DNA synthesis (at lower temperatures) by the DNA polymerase to selectively amplify the target DNA .

PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) is a revolutionary method developed by Kary Mullis in the 1980s. PCR is based on using the ability of DNA polymerase to synthesize new strand of DNA complementary to the offered template strand. Because DNA polymerase can add a nucleotide only onto a pre-existing 3'-OH group, it needs a primer to which it can add the first nucleotide. This requirement makes it possible to delineate a specific region of template sequence that the researcher wants to amplify. At the end of the PCR reaction, the specific sequence will be accumulated in billions of copies (amplicons).It is used in DNA cloningfor sequencing, DNA-based phylogeny, or functional analysis of genes; the diagnosis of hereditary diseases; the identification of genetic fingerprints(used in forensic sciencesand paternity testing); and the detection and diagnosis of infectious diseases. In 1993 Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistryfor his work on PCR.

PCR principles

PCR is used to amplify specific regions of a DNA strand (the DNA target). This can be a single gene, a part of a gene, or a non-coding sequence. Most PCR methods typically amplify DNA fragments of up to 10 kilo base pairs (kb), although some techniques allow for amplification of fragments up to 40 kb in size. A basic PCR set up requires several components and reagents.

These components include:

The PCR is commonly carried out in a reaction volume of 10-200 μl in small reaction tubes (0.2-0.5 ml volumes) in a thermal cycler. The thermal cycler heats and cools the reaction tubes to achieve the temperatures required at each step of the reaction. Many modern thermal cyclers make use of the Peltier effect which permits both heating and cooling of the block holding the PCR tubes simply by reversing the electric current. Thin-walled reaction tubes permit favorable thermal conductivity to allow for rapid thermal equilibration. Most thermal cyclers have heated lids to prevent condensation at the top of the reaction tube.


The PCR usually consists of a series of 20 to 40 repeated temperature changes called cycles; each cycle typically consists of 2-3 discrete temperature steps. Most commonly PCR is carried out with cycles that have three temperature steps. The cycling is often preceded by a single temperature step (called hold) at a high temperature (>90°C), and followed by one hold at the end for final product extension or brief storage. The temperatures used and the length of time they are applied in each cycle depend on a variety of parameters. These include the enzyme used for DNA synthesis, the concentration of divalent ions and dNTPs in the reaction, and the melting temperature (Tm) of the primers.

  1. Initialization step: This step consists of heating the reaction to a temperature of 94-96°C (or 98°C if extremely thermostable polymerases are used), which is held for 1-9 minutes. It is only required for DNA polymerases that require heat activation by hot-start PCR

  2. Denaturation step: This step is the first regular cycling event and consists of heating the reaction to 94-98°C for 20-30 seconds. It causes melting of DNA template and primers by disrupting the hydrogen bonds between complementary bases of the DNA strands, yielding single strands of DNA.

  3. Annealing step: The reaction temperature is lowered to 50-65°C for 20-40 seconds allowing annealing of the primers to the single-stranded DNA template. Typically the annealing temperature is about 3-5 degrees Celsius below the Tm of the primers used. Stable DNA-DNA hydrogen bonds are only formed when the primer sequence very closely matches the template sequence. The polymerase binds to the primer-template hybrid and begins DNA synthesis.

  4. Extension/elongation step: The temperature at this step depends on the DNA polymerase used; Taq polymerase has its optimum activity temperature at 75-80°C, and commonly a temperature of 72°C is used with this enzyme. At this step the DNA polymerase synthesizes a new DNA strand complementary to the DNA template strand by adding dNTPs that are complementary to the template in 5' to 3' direction, condensing the 5'-phosphate group of the dNTPs with the 3'-hydroxyl group at the end of the nascent (extending) DNA strand. The extension time depends both on the DNA polymerase used and on the length of the DNA fragment to be amplified. As a rule-of-thumb, at its optimum temperature, the DNA polymerase will polymerize a thousand bases per minute. Under optimum conditions, i.e., if there are no limitations due to limiting substrates or reagents, at each extension step, the amount of DNA target is doubled, leading to exponential (geometric) amplification of the specific DNA fragment.

  5. Final elongation: This single step is occasionally performed at a temperature of 70-74°C for 5-15 minutes after the last PCR cycle to ensure that any remaining single-stranded DNA is fully extended.

  6. Final hold: This step at 4-15°C for an indefinite time may be employed for short-term storage of the reaction. To check whether the PCR generated the anticipated DNA fragment (also sometimes referred to as the amplimer or amplicon), agarose gel electrophoresis is employed for size separation of the PCR products.

The size(s) of PCR products is determined by comparison with a DNA ladder (a molecular weight marker), which contains DNA fragments of known size, run on the gel alongside the PCR products.

PCR stages

The PCR process can be divided into three stages:

  1. Exponential amplification: At every cycle, the amount of product is doubled (assuming 100% reaction efficiency). The reaction is very specific and precise

  2. Levelling off stage: The reaction slows as the DNA polymerase loses activity and as consumption of reagents such as dNTPs and primers causes them to become limiting.

  3. Plateau: No more products accumulate due to exhaustion of reagents and enzyme.

Application of PCR

Isolation of genomic DNA:

PCR allows isolation of DNA fragments from genomic DNA by selective amplification of a specific region of DNA

  • Amplification and quantification of DNA:

Because PCR amplifies the regions of DNA that it targets, PCR can be used to analyze extremely small amounts of sample. This is often critical for forensic analysis, when only a trace amount of DNA is available as evidence. PCR may also be used in the analysis of ancient DNA that is tens of thousands of years old. These PCR-based techniques have been successfully used on animals, such as a forty-thousand-year-old mammoth, and also on human DNA, in applications ranging from the analysis of Egyptian mummiesto the identification of a RussianTsar.

  • PCR in diagnosis of diseases: PCR allows early diagnosis of malignant diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma, which is currently the highest developed in cancer research and is already being used routinely.

PCR also permits identification of non-cultivatable or slow-growing microorganisms such as mycobacteria, anaerobic bacteria, or virusesfrom tissue culture assays and animal models . Viral DNA can likewise be detected by PCR. The primers used need to be specific to the targeted sequences in the DNA of a virus, and the PCR can be used for diagnostic analyses or DNA sequencing of the viral genome.

Real-time PCR

A new method of PCR quantification has been invented. This is called "real-time PCR" because it allows the scientist to actually view the increase in the amount of DNA as it is amplified. Real-time polymerase chain reaction is also called quantitative real time polymerase chain reaction (Q-PCR/qPCR) or kinetic polymerase chain reaction. It enables both detection and of a specific sequence in a DNA sample. The procedure follows the general principle of polymerase chain reaction; its key feature is that the amplified DNA is quantified as it accumulates in the reaction in real time after each amplification cycle. Two common methods of quantification are:

  1. The use of fluorescent dyes that intercalate with double-stranded DNA, and

  2. Modified DNA oligonucleotide probes that fluoresce when hybridized with a complementary DNA.

A DNA-binding dye binds to all double-stranded (ds)DNAin PCR, causing fluorescence of the dye. An increase in DNA product during PCR therefore leads to an increase in fluorescence intensity and is measured at each cycle, thus allowing DNA concentrations to be quantified. However, dsDNA dyes such as SYBR Green will bind to all dsDNA PCR products, including nonspecific PCR products (such as "primerdimers"). Real-time PCR monitors the fluorescence emitted during the reaction as an indicator of amplicon production during each PCR cycle. The real-time PCR system is based on the detection and quantitation of a fluorescent reporter. This signal increases in direct proportion to the amount of PCR product in a reaction. By recording the amount of fluorescence emission at each cycle, it is possible to monitor the PCR reaction during exponential phase where the first significant increase in the amount of PCR product correlates to the initial amount of target template. The higher the starting copy number of the nucleic acid target, the sooner a significant increase in fluorescence is observed. A significant increase in fluorescence above the baseline value measured during the 3-15 cycles indicates the detection of accumulated PCR product.

RT-PCR (Reverse transcriptase PCR)

Taq polymerase does not work on RNA samples, so PCR cannot be used to directly amplify RNA molecules. The incorporation of the enzyme reverse transcriptase (RT), however, can be combined with traditional PCR to allow for the amplification of RNA molecules. After you add your RNA sample to the PCR machine, add a DNA primer as usual and allow it to anneal to your target molecule. Then add RT along with dNTPs, which will elongate the DNA primer and make a cDNA copy of the RNA molecules and run the PCR reaction as usual. The product of RT-PCR is a double stranded DNA molecule analogous to the target segment of the RNA molecule.


  • Ferre F, Marchese A, Pezzoli P, Griffin S, Buxton E, Boyer V. Quantitative PCR: an overview, p. 67-88. In K.B. Mullis, F. Ferre and R.A. Gibbs (Eds.), The Polymerase Chain Reaction. Boston. 1994.

  • Williams PM, Giles T, Tucker A, Winer J, Heid CA. Development and application of real-time quantitative PCR, p.313-325. In F. Ferre (Ed.), Gene Quantification. Boston. 1998.

  • Ririe KM, Rasmussen RP, Wittwer CT. Product differentiation by analysis of DNA melting curves during the polymerase chain reaction. Anal Biochem 1997; 245:154-60.

  • Mullis K, Faloona F, Scharf S, Saiki R, Horn G, Erlich H. Specific enzymatic amplification of DNA in vitro: the polymerase chain reaction. Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol 1986; 51 Pt 1:263-73.

  • Orlando C, Pinzani P, Pazzagli M. Developments in quantitative PCR. Clin Chem Lab Med 1998; 36:255-69.

  • Wittwer CT, Ririe KM, Rasmussen RP. Fluorescence monitoring of rapid cycle PCR for quantification, p. 129-144. In F. Ferre (Ed.), Gene Quantification. Boston. 1998.

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