Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP): Steps

Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP), a method applicable in molecular biology to detect variations in DNA sequences among individuals. It relies on the fact that DNA sequences can vary between individuals due to genetic mutations, insertions, deletions, or rearrangements.

These variations are the results due to differences in the length of DNA fragments generated by the action of restriction enzymes.

In the early 1970s, scientists discovered restriction enzymes, also known as restriction endonucleases, which cut DNA at specific recognition sequences. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, researchers realized that the variations in DNA sequences could be detected by digesting DNA samples with restriction enzymes. The use of gel electrophoresis helps in separating the resulting fragments. This technique became known as Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP) analysis.

Steps of Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism

Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP) involves several steps:

  1. DNA Extraction: DNA is extracted from the biological sample of interest, such as blood, tissue, or saliva. The extracted DNA is then purified to remove proteins and other contaminants.
  2. Restriction Enzyme Digestion: The second step is cleaving of extracted DNA into fragments using restriction enzymes. These enzymes recognize particular DNA sequences and cleave the DNA at or near these recognition sites. Different restriction enzymes have different recognition sequences, allowing researchers to generate a specific pattern of DNA fragments.
  3. Gel Electrophoresis: Gel electrophoresis helps in the separation of the digested DNA fragments by size. The DNA fragments are loaded into wells in a porous gel, and an electric current is applied. The negatively charged DNA molecules move through the gel towards the positively charged electrode. Smaller DNA fragments move more quickly through the gel than larger fragments, resulting in separation based on size.
  4. Denaturation and Transfer (Optional): In some cases, the separated DNA fragments are denatured (separated into single strands) and transferred onto a solid support such as a nylon membrane in a process called Southern blotting. This step is optional and often facilitates further analysis, such as hybridization with DNA probes.
  5. Hybridization (Optional): If Southern blotting is performed, the membrane containing the transferred DNA fragments may be hybridized with DNA probes. These probes are single-stranded DNA molecules complementary to specific target sequences within the DNA fragments. Hybridization allows for the detection of specific DNA sequences of interest.
  6. Visualization and Analysis: The DNA fragments are visualized using staining techniques or autoradiography after gel electrophoresis or hybridization. The resulting pattern of DNA bands represents the unique fragment sizes present in the sample. The analysis of this pattern can help to identify genetic variations or polymorphisms among individuals.
  7. Data Interpretation: The interpretation of pattern of DNA fragments obtained from RFLP analysis can help to infer genetic information, such as the presence or absence of specific alleles, genetic mutations, or relationships between individuals.

Applications of RFLP

RFLP involves cutting DNA molecules into fragments using restriction enzymes and then separating these fragments based on their lengths using gel electrophoresis.

  1. Genetic Mapping: RFLP analysis is applicable to construct genetic maps by identifying polymorphic markers (RFLPs) inherited along with genes of interest. By analyzing the segregation of these markers in families or populations, geneticists can determine the relative positions of genes on chromosomes.
  2. Linkage Analysis: RFLPs serve as genetic markers to track the inheritance of particular alleles within families. By analyzing the co-inheritance of RFLP markers with a disease phenotype or a trait of interest, researchers can identify regions of the genome linked to the trait and potentially contain the gene(s) responsible.
  3. Forensic Analysis: RFLP analysis has been historically useful in forensic investigations to compare DNA samples from crime scenes with those of suspects or victims. By analyzing RFLP patterns, forensic scientists can determine whether the DNA samples match, providing evidence for or against a suspect’s involvement in a crime.
  4. Disease Association Studies: RFLP analysis can be helpful to investigate the association between specific DNA sequences (alleles) and disease susceptibility. Researchers can distinguish genetic markers associated with diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disorders, and genetic syndromes by comparing the frequency of particular RFLP alleles in affected individuals versus healthy controls.
  5. Population Genetics: RFLP analysis is applicable to study genetic diversity and evolutionary relationships among populations. Researchers can infer population structure, migration patterns, and evolutionary history by comparing RFLP patterns across different populations.
  6. Plant and Animal Breeding: RFLP analysis is utilized in breeding programs to select desirable traits in plants and animals. By identifying RFLP markers linked to traits such as disease resistance, yield, or quality, breeders can use marker-assisted selection to accelerate the breeding process and develop improved varieties.
  7. DNA Fingerprinting: RFLP was historically helpful in DNA fingerprinting for individual identification. By analyzing RFLP patterns at specific loci in an individual’s DNA, unique profiles can be generated for forensic or paternity testing purposes.

Advantages of Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism

While RFLP analysis is primarily supplanted by more modern techniques such as PCR and DNA sequencing, it still offers particular advantages in specific contexts:

  1. High Information Content: RFLP analysis can simultaneously provide information on many loci across the genome. This allows for assessing genetic variation at multiple genomic regions in a single experiment.
  2. Stability and Reproducibility: RFLP patterns are stable and reproducible, making them reliable markers for genetic studies and population analyses. Once established, RFLP assays can be performed consistently over time and across different laboratories.
  3. No Prior Sequence Knowledge Required: RFLP analysis does not rely on sequence information, unlike PCR-based methods that require prior sequence knowledge for primer design. This makes it particularly useful for studying species with poorly characterized genomes or detecting unknown genetic variants.
  4. Long DNA Fragments: RFLP analysis can accommodate relatively long DNA fragments compared to PCR-based techniques. This makes it helpful in detecting significant structural variations such as insertions, deletions, and rearrangements in the genome.
  5. Cost-Effectiveness for Low-Throughput Analysis: In some cases, particularly for low-throughput applications, RFLP analysis may be more cost-effective than PCR-based methods. PCR, which require more expensive reagents and equipment.
  6. Visual Readout: RFLP patterns can be visualized directly on agarose gels following electrophoresis, allowing straightforward interpretation without requiring specialized equipment or software.
  7. Historical Significance: RFLP analysis has played a crucial role in the history of molecular genetics and has contributed to many seminal discoveries in the field. While it is less commonly used today, its historical significance must be balanced.

Disadvantages of RFLP

While restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis is a valuable tool in molecular biology, it also comes with several limitations and disadvantages, which have contributed to its declining use in favor of more advanced techniques like PCR and DNA sequencing:

  1. Labor-Intensive: RFLP analysis involves multiple steps, including DNA extraction, restriction enzyme digestion, gel electrophoresis, and visualization of DNA fragments. Each step requires time and labor, making the technique relatively labor-intensive compared to newer methods.
  2. Low Sensitivity: RFLP analysis may have lower sensitivity than PCR-based methods, particularly when detecting rare genetic variants or analyzing samples with limited DNA quantities. This limitation can hinder the detection of subtle genetic differences.
  3. Requirement for High-Quality DNA: RFLP analysis requires relatively large amounts of high-quality DNA, which may only sometimes be available, especially in samples of degraded or low-purity DNA. Additionally, RFLP analysis may be sensitive to DNA degradation, which can affect the quality of results.
  4. Limited Multiplexing: RFLP analysis is generally not conducive to multiplexing, i.e., simultaneous analysis of multiple genetic markers in a single reaction. Each RFLP assay typically targets a single genetic locus, limiting throughput and efficiency compared to multiplex PCR or sequencing approaches.
  5. Limited Availability of Suitable Restriction Enzyme Sites: The effectiveness of RFLP analysis depends on the presence of sites that recognize restriction enzymes within the DNA sequence of interest. In some cases, suitable restriction sites may be rare or absent, limiting the applicability of RFLP analysis.


  1. Jarcho J. (2001). Restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis. Current protocols in human genetics, Chapter 2, . 
  2. Restriction fragment length polymorphism. (1990). Experimental and clinical immunogenetics, 7(1), 1–84.
  3. Narayanan S. (1991). Applications of restriction fragment length polymorphism. Annals of clinical and laboratory science, 21(4), 291–296.
  4. Sen, D. S. K. (2024, February). Restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP). 

Ashma Shrestha

Hello, I am Ashma Shrestha. I had recently completed my Masters degree in Medical Microbiology. Passionate about writing and blogging. Key interest in virology and molecular biology.

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