Synthesis of new DNA molecules starts when DNA polymerase links nucleotides together in a sequence that is complementary to the template DNA strand. DNA polymerase has a higher affinity for the correct base to ensure fidelity in DNA replication. The DNA polymerase furthermore proofreads during replication, using an exonuclease domain that cuts off incorrect nucleotides from the nascent DNA strand.
Genomic DNA is synthesized in the 5’ to 3’ direction. Each cell contains a number of DNA polymerases that play different roles in synthesizing and correcting mistakes in DNA; DNA polymerase delta and epsilon possess proofreading ability when replicating nuclear DNA. These polymerases “read” each base after it is added to the new strand. If the newly-added base is incorrect, the polymerase reverses direction (moving from 3’ to 5’) and uses an exonucleolytic domain to cut off the incorrect base. Subsequently, it is replaced with the correct base.
Proofreading is important for preventing mutations from occurring in newly-synthesized DNA, but what happens when the proofreading mechanism fails? When a mutation alters the exonuclease domain of DNA polymerase, it loses the ability to remove incorrect nucleotides. In consequence, mutations can accumulate rapidly throughout the genome. This type of mutation has been linked to various types of cancer.
Modified DNA polymerases are used in laboratory science for polymerase chain reaction (PCR), an in vitro technique for making many copies of specific fragments of DNA. While high-fidelity polymerases are used when it is important that the end product is perfect, some techniques, such as error-prone PCR, seek to generate mutations in a stretch of DNA on purpose. These techniques use polymerases that have compromised proofreading ability.
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