In PCR, DNA (see nucleic acid) is immersed in a solution containing the enzyme DNA polymerase, unattached nucleotide bases (the subunits that DNA is composed of), and "primers," short sequences of nucleotides designed to bind with an end of the desired DNA segment. Two primers are used: one primer binds at one end of the desired segment on one of the two paired DNA strands, and the other primer binds at the other end but on the other strand. The solution is heated to break the bonds between the strands of the DNA. When the solution cools, the primers bind to the separated strands, and DNA polymerase quickly builds a new strand by joining the free nucleotide bases to the primers. When this process is repeated, a strand that was formed with one primer binds to the other primer, resulting in a new strand that is restricted solely to the desired segment. Thus the region of DNA between the primers is selectively replicated. Further repetitions of the process can produce billions of copies of a small piece of DNA in several hours.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.