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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

What Have Restriction Enzymes Ever Done for Us?


Restriction enzymes, along with their counterparts the DNA methyltransferases, make up restriction-modification systems in almost all bacteria. The restriction enzymes have the ability to cut DNA into fragments. This has allowed experimenters to join such fragments together to make novel arrangements of DNA which had never before existed in nature. This ability to perform genetic engineering, developed from the 1970s onwards, has had an enormous influence on the modern world – establishing the biotechnology industry and transforming our understanding of biology and of medicine. Furthermore, the restriction enzymes have had an enormous impact on the rate of evolution of life on earth. They were almost certainly present in the earliest forms of bacterial cells some four billion years ago to control their uptake of DNA from their environment. If the restriction systems had had too much or too little control of this process then the rate of evolution of bacteria, and hence the time for the appearance of higher organisms such as ourselves, would likely have been greatly delayed – such that we might not yet exist on earth.