We have modified several aspects of the single strand conformational polymorphism (SSCP) method to increase the speed with which the technique can be used for mutation detection. The methods attain high resolution of small mobility differences using long (30 cm) gels and use a modified polymerase reaction to maximise detection sensitivity using a minimised quantity of 32P. By using custom cut "sharktooth" combs (4.5 mm between teeth) as the slot formers, commercially available multichannel pipettes (9 mm tip to tip) can be used to load eight or 12 samples at a time from standard microtitre plates. PCR products that have been prepared and radiolabelled using simplified protocols are loaded on to the gel, and after a precalculated time of electrophoresis another set of samples can be loaded, either with combs moved across 2.25 mm or onto the same gel tracks. The run conditions are calculated so that there is no overlap between the bands produced by the two loadings, thus doubling the amount of information that can be gained from one gel. A computer program has been developed to solve equations to determine suitable timings for repetitive loadings. Finally, a modification of the gel pouring system is described so that two gels can be poured between three standard glass plates, with both gels run simultaneously. Of the order of 1000 PCR reactions can be prepared and analysed in 24 man hours using five 40 cm x 30 cm gel tanks. The application of these techniques is described to detect SSCPs in exon 3 of the low density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR) gene in 791 patients with familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH). Eight different SSCP patterns were seen, one of which was caused by the previously described E80K mutation, which was present in 11 patients (1.4%). In total, 32 patients (4%) were identified with exon 3 mutations.
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