written by: bjlbyron•edited by: lrohner•updated: 7/15/2011
Just ten years removed from the sequencing of the entire human genome, we have entered a golden era of genetics. Indeed, genetic discoveries are being made at a furious pace in laboratories throughout the world. Read on to learn about common, important genetic research tools and how they are used.
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The Importance Of Genetic Research
Information gleaned though genetic research has helped scientists create new diagnostic tests and therapeutic treatment methods that have benefitted millions of patients worldwide. Much of this information has been gained in the past few decades thanks largely to the development of powerful basic research tools that have made genetic research less arduous. This article takes a look at a few of the more interesting and more helpful of these tools.
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Restriction enzymes are proteins that recognize specific sequences, usually four to 10 nucleotides in a stretch of DNA, and cut, or cleave, the DNA only wherever that sequence appears. There are thousands of different restriction enzymes which, collectively, are able to cleave DNA at thousands of different specific nucleotide sequences. First discovered in 1970, restriction enzymes represent one of the oldest known tools available to genetic researchers.
Among their many benefits, restriction enzymes help researchers excise an individual gene from an organism's genome and then couple that gene to other portions of foreign DNA, a process known as "cloning," for study of gene function. Although not often used for this purpose anymore, restriction enzymes also helped researchers detect differences in DNA sequences among individual organisms of a species, which is helpful for detecting mutations within a population.
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Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)-Based Techniques
The polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, is one of the most powerful and most often used tools in the geneticist's toolkit. Developed in the late 1980s, PCR enables scientists to synthesize millions of copies of a particular stretch of DNA from just one DNA molecule, or from just a few DNA molecules in just a couple of hours' time. From a research standpoint, this technique is often employed for the purpose of creating sufficient copies of DNA of a particular sequence to help determine, for example, whether a model organism carries a particular mutation or to determine whether a particular gene is expressed (i.e., makes a protein) in a particular cell type, and if so, to what extent.
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DNA Sequencing Machines
In the 1970s, scientists discovered manual techniques for determining the exact sequence of a stretch of DNA. Although powerful at the time, these techniques have been replaced by exponentially faster and more accurate means through the development of automated DNA sequencing machines. These machines in fact allowed for the sequencing of the human genome in addition to the genomes of several genetic model organisms, such as mouse, fruit fly, and worms, for example. Genome sequencing has helped expedite the study of the functions of many genes, which has, in turn, help created genetic-based diagnostic tests for susceptibility to particular diseases,such as breast cancer, and for methods of treating those diseases.
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A Final Word
Described above are only a few of the many important genetic research tools that genetic researchers currently employ to make genetic discoveries. As genetics is an ever-evolving field, it is likely than several other key tools will be developing in the coming years. And who knows? Maybe even one day home genetic tools, such as genome sequencing kits, for example, will be available at the local drugstore and routinely used by laymen.
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G. Karp, Cell And Molecular Biology: Concepts And Experiments, Fifth Ed., John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2008.
National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health: http://www.genome.gov/10002335