Biological Function and Historical Background

Restriction enzymes apparently evolved as a primitive immune system in bacteria. If viruses enter a bacterial cell containing restriction enzymes, the viral DNA is fragmented. Destruction of the viral DNA prevents destruction of the bacterial cell by the virus. The term "restriction" derives from the phenomenon in which bacterial viruses are restricted from replicating in certain strains of bacteria by enzymes that cleave the viral DNA, but leave the bacterial DNA untouched. In bacteria, restriction enzymes form a system with modification enzymes that methylate the bacterial DNA. Methy-lation of DNA at the recognition sequence typically protects the microbe from cleaving its own DNA.

Since the 1970s, restriction enzymes have had a very important role in recombinant DNA techniques, in both the creation and analysis of recombinant DNA molecules. The first restriction enzyme was isolated and characterized in 1968, and over 3,400 restriction enzymes have been discovered since. Of these enzymes, over 540 are currently commercially available.

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