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Explainer: How PCR works

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amplify     To increase in number, volume or other measure of responsiveness.

cell   The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical      A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

complement   To match or fit with something else to complete it. In genetics, a series of nucleotides that pairs exactly with another sequence of DNA or RNA is called the complement of that sequence.

DNA  (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

DNA sequencing    The process of determining the exact order of the paired building blocks — called nucleotides — that form each rung of a ladder-like strand of DNA. There are only four nucleotides: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (which are abbreviated A, C, G and T). And adenine always pairs up with thymine; cytosine always pairs with guanine.

environmental science   The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

forensics    The use of science and technology to investigate and solve crimes.

gene   (adj. genetic)  A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for producing a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

genetic sequence   A string of DNA bases, or nucleotides, that provide instructions for building molecules in a cell. They are represented by the letters A,C,T and G.

mutation  Some change that occurs to a gene in an organism’s DNA. Some mutations occur naturally. Others can be triggered by outside factors, such as pollution, radiation, medicines or something in the diet. A gene with this change is described as a mutant.

nucleotides    The four chemicals that, like rungs on a ladder, link up the two strands that make up DNA. They are: A (adenine), T (thymine), C (cytosine) and G (guanine). A links with T, and C links with G, to form DNA. In RNA, uracil takes the place of thymine.

polymerase chain reaction (PCR)    A biochemical process that repeatedly copies a particular sequence of DNA. A related, but somewhat different technique, copies genes expressed by the DNA in a cell. This technique is called reverse transcriptase PCR. Like regular PCR, it copies genetic material so that other techniques can identify aspects of the genes or match them to known genes.

primer   (in genetics) A sequence of nucleotides that is the complement for a short part of a strand of DNA that someone wants to find. In the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, the primer finds the end of a targeted DNA length and starts the process of copying it over and over.

species    A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

variant     A version of something that may come in different forms. (in genetics) A gene having a slight mutation that may have left its host species somewhat better adapted for its environment.

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