Strategies Used in Sequencing Projects
The basic sequencing technique used in all modern day sequencing projects is the chain termination method (also known as the dideoxy method), which Fred Sanger developed in the 1970s. The chain termination method involves DNA replication of a single-stranded template by using a primer and a regular deoxynucleotide (dNTP), which is a monomer, or a single DNA unit. The primer and dNTP mix with a small proportion of fluorescently labeled dideoxynucleotides (ddNTPs). The ddNTPs are monomers that are missing a hydroxyl group (–OH) at the site at which another nucleotide usually attaches to form a chain (Figure). Scientists label each ddNTP with a different color of fluorophore. Every time a ddNTP incorporates in the growing complementary strand, it terminates the DNA replication process, which results in multiple short strands of replicated DNA that each terminate at a different point during replication. When gel electrophoresis processes the reaction mixture after separating into single strands, the multiple newly replicated DNA strands form a ladder because of the differing sizes. Because the ddNTPs are fluorescently labeled, each band on the gel reflects the DNA strand’s size and the ddNTP that terminated the reaction. The different colors of the fluorophore-labeled ddNTPs help identify the ddNTP incorporated at that position. Reading the gel on the basis of each band’s color on the ladder produces the template strand’s sequence (Figure).
Early Strategies: Shotgun Sequencing and Pair-Wise End Sequencing
In shotgun sequencing method, several DNA fragment copies cut randomly into many smaller pieces (somewhat like what happens to a round shot cartridge when fired from a shotgun). All of the segments sequence using the chain-sequencing method. Then, with sequence computer assistance, scientists can analyze the fragments to see where their sequences overlap. By matching overlapping sequences at each fragment’s end, scientists can reform the entire DNA sequence. A larger sequence that is assembled from overlapping shorter sequences is called a contig. As an analogy, consider that someone has four copies of a landscape photograph that you have never seen before and know nothing about how it should appear. The person then rips up each photograph with their hands, so that different size pieces are present from each copy. The person then mixes all of the pieces together and asks you to reconstruct the photograph. In one of the smaller pieces you see a mountain. In a larger piece, you see that the same mountain is behind a lake. A third fragment shows only the lake, but it reveals that there is a cabin on the shore of the lake. Therefore, from looking at the overlapping information in these three fragments, you know that the picture contains a mountain behind a lake that has a cabin on its shore. This is the principle behind reconstructing entire DNA sequences using shotgun sequencing.
Originally, shotgun sequencing only analyzed one end of each fragment for overlaps. This was sufficient for sequencing small genomes. However, the desire to sequence larger genomes, such as that of a human, led to developing double-barrel shotgun sequencing, or pairwise-end sequencing. In pairwise-end sequencing, scientists analyze each fragment’s end for overlap. Pairwise-end sequencing is, therefore, more cumbersome than shotgun sequencing, but it is easier to reconstruct the sequence because there is more available information.
Since 2005, automated sequencing techniques used by laboratories are under the umbrella of next-generation sequencing, which is a group of automated techniques used for rapid DNA sequencing. These automated low-cost sequencers can generate sequences of hundreds of thousands or millions of short fragments (25 to 500 base pairs) in the span of one day. These sequencers use sophisticated software to get through the cumbersome process of putting all the fragments in order.
Comparing SequencesA sequence alignment is an arrangement of proteins, DNA, or RNA. Scientists use it to identify similar regions between cell types or species, which may indicate function or structure conservation. We can use sequence alignments to construct phylogenetic trees. The following website uses a software program called BLAST (basic local alignment search tool).
Under “Basic Blast,” click “Nucleotide Blast.” Input the following sequence into the large "query sequence" box: ATTGCTTCGATTGCA. Below the box, locate the "Species" field and type "human" or "Homo sapiens". Then click “BLAST” to compare the inputted sequence against the human genome’s known sequences. The result is that this sequence occurs in over a hundred places in the human genome. Scroll down below the graphic with the horizontal bars and you will see a short description of each of the matching hits. Pick one of the hits near the top of the list and click on "Graphics". This will bring you to a page that shows the sequence’s location within the entire human genome. You can move the slider that looks like a green flag back and forth to view the sequences immediately around the selected gene. You can then return to your selected sequence by clicking the "ATG" button.