Maxam-Gilbert sequencing, also known as chemical sequencing, is a method for determining the nucleotide sequence of DNA. It was developed by Allan Maxam and Walter Gilbert in 1977 and was one of the first methods for DNA sequencing. This technique involves the use of chemical reactions to cleave DNA at specific bases, allowing the sequence of the DNA to be determined.

Principles of Maxam-Gilbert Sequencing

Maxam-Gilbert sequencing relies on the chemical modification of DNA bases followed by cleavage at specific positions. The process involves four main steps:

  1. Labeling: The DNA fragment to be sequenced is labeled at one end, typically using radioactive or fluorescent tags.
  2. Chemical Modification: The labeled DNA fragment is subjected to specific chemical reactions that modify the bases at specific positions. For example, dimethyl sulfate can methylate adenine and cytosine, while hydrazine can modify guanine.
  3. Cleavage: After chemical modification, the DNA is subjected to cleavage under mild alkaline conditions, resulting in breaks at the modified bases.
  4. Visualization: The resulting fragments are separated by gel electrophoresis, and the sequence is determined by analyzing the pattern of bands on the gel.

Advantages and Limitations

One advantage of Maxam-Gilbert sequencing is its ability to sequence relatively long stretches of DNA compared to other early sequencing methods. Additionally, it can provide information about specific bases in a sequence. However, this method has several limitations, including its reliance on hazardous chemicals and radioactive labeling, which can pose safety concerns and require special handling.

Comparison with Sanger Sequencing

Maxam-Gilbert sequencing was one of the two primary methods used for DNA sequencing in the early days of genomics, with Sanger sequencing being the other major technique. While both methods provided valuable insights into DNA sequences, Sanger sequencing eventually became more widely adopted due to its simpler methodology and reduced reliance on hazardous chemicals.


Maxam-Gilbert sequencing has been instrumental in deciphering the sequences of various DNA fragments, including genes and regulatory elements. It has contributed to our understanding of genetic diseases, evolutionary relationships, and fundamental biological processes.

In summary, Maxam-Gilbert sequencing played a crucial role in the early days of genomics by enabling scientists to determine the nucleotide sequences of DNA fragments. While it has been largely replaced by more advanced and high-throughput sequencing technologies, its historical significance in advancing our understanding of genetics and molecular biology cannot be overstated.

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