The polymerase chain reaction or PCR is central to much of the molecular biology research performed today. The technique was used for the human genome project, is used as the definitive test to identify many pathogens including H1N1 and is the basis for our understanding of the tree of life. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of PCR’s are performed every day in labs all over the world. The enzyme used for PCR is called Taq Polymerase1. It is at the heart of the PCR reaction and it was not engineered by man. Rather, it evolved billions of years ago. It is a beautiful example of natures power to innovate.
Polymerases are a class of enzyme that catalyze the synthesis of a chain, or polymer, from component parts. Taq polymerase is a DNA polymerase, catalyzing the syntheses of DNA from nucleic acids. All living things have to have at least one DNA polymerase in order to synthesize the DNA required for growth and reproduction.
The exponential amplification characteristic of PCR stems from ability to repeat the reaction steps over an over again by cycling the reaction through a series of temperatures. These temperature steps include one at near boiling. This high temperature separates the double strands of DNA allowing each strand to be used as a template to synthesis more DNA.
Most enzymes (including most DNA polymerases) are not heat stable. They denature when heated and lose their activity, even after they are cooled back down. Taq polymerase isolated from the thermophilic bacteria Thermus aquaticus retains it activity after being heated to near boiling (95 °C). It is not active at 95 °C, but renatures and regains its activity upon being cooled. The ability of Taq polymerase it to remain active after repeatedly being heated allows the cycling of the PCR to create billions of copies of a target sequence from a single template using reagents added at the begining of the reaction.
1This was the first theromostable polymerase to be widely used. In the more than 25 years since its introduction, other heat stable polymerases have been introduced.
*last edited 11 May 2010 - minor edits and links added