polymerase chain reaction (PCR)

Laboratory technique used to make numerous copies of specific DNA segments quickly and accurately. These are needed for various experiments and procedures in molecular biology, forensic analysis (DNA fingerprinting), evolutionary biology (to amplify DNA fragments found in ancient specimens), and medicine (to diagnose genetic disease or detect low viral counts). Invented by Kary Mullis, PCR requires a DNA template (as little as one molecule) to copy, nucleotides to build the copies, and the enzyme DNA polymerase to catalyze the formation of bonds between the nucleotide monomers. Each three-step cycle (separating the two strands of the DNA double helix, marking the ends of the segment to be copied, and catalyzing the formation of bonds), which takes only minutes to complete, doubles the number of DNA strands present in the reaction medium. Repetition of this cycle many times results in an exponential increase in the amount of DNA.

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Process yielding products that initiate further processes of the same kind. Nuclear chain reactions are a series of nuclear fissions initiated by neutrons produced in a preceding fission. A critical mass, large enough to allow more than one fission-produced neutron to be captured, is necessary for the chain reaction to be self-sustaining. Uncontrolled chain reactions, as in an atomic bomb, occur when large numbers of neutrons are present and the reactions multiply very quickly. Nuclear reactors control their reactions through the careful distribution of the fissionable material and insertion of neutron-absorbing materials.

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A chain reaction is a sequence of reactions where a reactive product or by-product causes additional reactions to take place. It is a self-amplifying chain of events.

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