In the world of genetics, Sanger DNA sequencing stands as a pioneering technique that has revolutionised our understanding of life’s most fundamental code – DNA.

What is the DNA?

DNA, short for Deoxyribonucleic Acid, is a code hidden within your cells that holds the blueprint for your entire existence. It’s like a library of information containing all the instructions needed to build and maintain you to be the unique individual you are.

Now, picture DNA as a twisted ladder (but much, much smaller). Each step on this staircase is a nucleotide. Each nucleotide consists of three components: a phosphate group, a deoxyribose sugar, and a nitrogen-containing base. Nucleotides are all identical except for their base, which ranges between four different bases: adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, referred to by the letters A, T, C, and G – the alphabets of life. They encode all the genetic information that determines our traits, functions, and characteristics.

What is DNA Sequencing?

DNA sequencing is the process of determining the sequence of nucleotides (As, Ts, Cs, and Gs) in a piece of DNA. Sequencing a short stretch of DNA is a simple, straightforward process. However, sequencing the entire genome of an organism is a complicated task. It requires breaking the DNA into much smaller fragments (900 base pairs (bp) or less), sequencing those tiny fragments and then reassembling all the sequences until we obtain the entire chromosome’s sequence.

You’ve probably heard of the Human Genome Project, one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of science. The project’s signature accomplishment was to sequence the entire human genome to provide fundamental information about the human blueprint. It launched in October 1990 and was completed in April 2003; it took 13 years to sequence the human genome completely! 

Don’t be surprised! If you were to unwind the DNA in one cell, it would be about 1.8 metres long. If you combine the DNA from all your cells, they will make a 54 billion km-long strand! For comparison, Pluto is only 7.4 billion km away from Earth. DNA from just one human is so long that it could reach Pluto and back more than seven times. Your DNA combined could also stretch from the Earth to the sun and back about 600 times.

So, if we tell you that the human genome has about 3.4 billion base pairs, you’d probably think that 13 years is a short time! Since that project, the study of human biology has accelerated, and the practice of medicine has significantly improved.

The Quest for DNA Sequencing

The journey of DNA sequencing began with a quest to decipher the precise order of these nucleotide base pairs along the DNA molecule. Scientists realised that unlocking this sequence would open the doors to understanding how genes function, identifying genetic disorders, and tracing evolutionary relationships and the ancestry of living beings.

The method of Sanger DNA sequencing is like the Sherlock Holmes of genetic detectives. It was developed in 1977 by Frederick Sanger, a brilliant British biochemist who won not one but TWO Nobel Prizes for his groundbreaking work! This ingenious method allows scientists to read the genetic code in a piece of your DNA (less than 1,000 bp) and decipher its precise sequence of nucleotides – the tiny building blocks that spell out your genetic identity. 

You might wonder, “How on Earth do they do that?” Well, hold on to your hats because here’s the scoop:

Step One: Extracting the DNA

To start with, we need a sample of DNA to work with. You can obtain that from a cheek swab, a drop of blood, or even a tiny piece of tissue. You can extract DNA with a DNA extraction kit, and once you’ve got your hands on this microscopic treasure trove, the real fun begins.

Step Two: Copying the DNA (The DNA Replication Process)

To understand Sanger’s method, we must first grasp the concept of DNA replication. DNA replication is a natural process in living cells during cell division. Enzymes called DNA polymerases assist in replication by creating a complementary strand for each original DNA strand. This results in two identical DNA molecules, each carrying the same genetic information.

Sanger’s method requires obtaining sufficient amounts of DNA to work with. So, to unlock this precious molecule’s secrets, we need to make multiple copies of it. It’s like creating an army of DNA clones. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) came to the rescue, a powerful technique that could rapidly amplify a specific DNA segment, making millions of identical copies from a tiny sample. This step ensured that scientists had enough DNA to analyse accurately.

Step Three: Sanger DNA Sequencing Ingredients

Here comes the fun part! We will need the same ingredients as those used for DNA replication in an organism or for PCR. These include DNA polymerase enzymes, a primer, the standard DNA nucleotides (dATP, dTTP, dCTP, dGTP), and the DNA piece you want to sequence. So, where is the difference between Sanger’s method and DNA replication?

Sanger used a clever technique to reveal the sequence of nucleotides. He added a unique ingredient, special molecules that are like fluorescent tags; each tag is a different colour. These molecules are a set of chain-terminating nucleotides, commonly known as dideoxynucleotides (ddNTPs). So, he used versions of all four nucleotides (ddATP, ddTTP, ddCTP, ddGTP).

ddNTPs are actually similar to regular dNTPs, but they lack a crucial component required for DNA replication, a 3′ hydroxyl group on the sugar, which usually acts as a hook allowing the incorporation of new nucleotides to the chain. When ddNTPs are incorporated into the growing DNA chain, they cause the process to terminate. That’s why Sanger DNA sequencing is also called the chain termination method. Each ddNTP is labelled with a distinct coloured fluorescent marker; this way, we can see which nucleotide comes next in the sequence! 

Sanger DNA Sequencing

Step Four: The Method of Sanger DNA Sequencing

Here’s where the art lies, or shall we say the colours of chemistry emerge?

The sequencing process begins by preparing a tube containing the DNA sample you want to sequence, all four standard DNA nucleotides (dATP, dTTP, dGTP, and dCTP), primer and DNA polymerase. We will also add small amounts of the fluorescently labelled chain-terminating ddNTPs. 

As the DNA polymerase synthesises a new DNA strand, it occasionally incorporates one of these chain-terminating ddNTPs instead of a normal one. Thus, DNA elongation is terminated, and the fragment will end with a ddNTP. This process is repeated for so many cycles. By the time all the cycles end, you can guarantee that a ddNTP is incorporated at every single position of the target DNA at least once. Thus, this leads to the production of DNA fragments of various lengths, each ending with a fluorescently labelled ddNTP.

Step Five: Capillary Electrophoresis

It’s showtime! The final step in the Sanger DNA sequencing process is capillary electrophoresis, where the DNA fragments are loaded into a long, thin capillary tube containing a gel matrix. An electric current is applied, causing our tagged DNA fragments to move through the capillary based on size and charge.

The shorter DNA fragments travel faster through the pores of the gel, while the longer ones lag behind. As the fragments reach their finish line, a detector records the fluorescent signals emitted by the ddNTPs, producing a unique colourful pattern of DNA fragments analogous to a genetic barcode.

Step Six: Decoding the Genetic Barcode

Just like decoding a secret message, we examine the pattern to figure out the sequence of the nucleotides. We analyse the different fluorescent peaks generated during capillary electrophoresis. Each peak corresponds to a specific nucleotide, and by analysing the order of peaks, we can decipher the genetic message hidden within the DNA! Sanger DNA sequencing is considered the “gold standard” for validating DNA sequences with 99.99% base accuracy. 

Modern Advancements to Sanger DNA Sequencing

Since its inception, the Sanger DNA Sequencing method has paved the way for remarkable advancements in DNA sequencing technology. Today, high-throughput sequencing platforms like Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) have surpassed the Sanger method in terms of speed, cost, and efficiency. At accelerated speeds, NGS can simultaneously sequence over 100 genes and whole genomes with low-input DNA.

Nevertheless, the Sanger method remains a valuable tool still in use for the targeted sequencing of individual pieces of DNA, such as fragments used in DNA cloning and other various genetic research fields.

Sanger DNA Sequencing

What are the Advantages of Sanger DNA sequencing?

A gold standard method for unravelling the genetic code: The Sanger DNA Sequencing method is like having a genetic magnifying glass allowing scientists to read the genetic code and decode the sequence of nucleotides with impressive accuracy. By revealing the precise order of these tiny building blocks, we gain insights into the genetic blueprints of living beings, including humans.

99.9% Accuracy: When it comes to accuracy, the Sanger DNA Sequencing method is precise and accurate as Sherlock Holmes. It can decipher even the tiniest genetic details, giving us a clear picture of the DNA sequence. No genetic stone is left unturned!

Cost-effective: If you want to sequence single genes or urgently need to test samples that can’t be batched up, for example, in prenatal testing during pregnancy, Sanger DNA Sequencing comes in and saves the day.

Targeted Sequencing: Imagine being able to zoom in on specific regions of DNA with surgical precision. That’s precisely what the Sanger method offers! It’s perfect for focusing on specific genes of interest, allowing scientists to study individual genetic variations easily.

What are the Limitations of Sanger DNA Sequencing?

Snail-Paced Sequencing: Now, hold your horses! While the Sanger DNA Sequencing method is impressive, it’s not the fastest kid on the DNA sequencing block. It’s a bit slow when dealing with long stretches of DNA. Modern Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) has zoomed ahead in terms of speed.

Short Reads Only: Alas! The Sanger DNA Sequencing method can only handle relatively short DNA fragments (up to 1000bp), making it less suitable for studying large-scale genomic projects. For the big stuff, NGS swoops in to save the day!

Not cost-effective: If you’re planning to sequence many genes in parallel or the same region of DNA in many samples for larger-scale projects, such as sequencing an entire genome, Sanger DNA sequencing will be expensive and inefficient. It will deliver limited throughput data, meaning it won’t read several DNA molecules simultaneously. On the other hand, NGS can sequence many fragments in parallel, enabling scientists to read hundreds of DNA fragments with less time and cost.

Requires a larger amount of input DNA than NGS: This might be inconvenient, especially in cases where the DNA is limited, such as in crime scenes, where the only source of DNA is a fingerprint, a drop of blood, or a tiny hair. Again, NGS here will save the day.

Sanger DNA Sequencing

What are the Applications of Sanger DNA Sequencing?

Solving Crimes and Mysteries: Calling all CSI fans! The Sanger DNA Sequencing method is a star player in the world of forensics and criminology. It helps identify criminals through DNA evidence left at crime scenes. With this handy technique, investigators can match suspects’ DNA to samples collected, cracking cases wide open!

Personalised Medicine: Sanger DNA Sequencing method has found its way into the realm of personalised medicine. By analysing an individual’s genetic makeup, doctors can tailor medical treatments to suit their unique DNA code. It’s like having a custom-made health plan!

Time Travel with DNA: Want to know your ancient ancestry? The Sanger method can take us on a time-travelling adventure! By sequencing ancient DNA from fossils or archaeological remains, we can discover our evolutionary past and the history of our ancestors.

Detecting Genetic Disorders: Our DNA holds the answers to potential genetic disorders. Sanger DNA sequencing helps diagnose these disorders by pinpointing specific mutations that might cause health issues. Knowledge is power when it comes to our genetic health!

And there you have it – the DNA Sanger Sequencing method in all its glory! This technique has undoubtedly been a pivotal milestone in genetics, enabling scientists to unravel the genetic mysteries underpinning life itself. Its legacy lives on in modern sequencing technologies, and the knowledge gained from Sanger sequencing continues to shape our understanding of biology, medicine, and evolutionary relationships. As we venture further into genetic exploration, let us acknowledge the brilliance of Frederick Sanger’s method, which continues to be a beacon guiding us through the intricate pathways of the genetic code.

Happy DNA decoding, dear reader, and may your curiosity lead you to even more remarkable wonders in science!