The role of alcohol in DNA extraction is to precipitate DNA into the visible form. In this article, we will discuss the chemistry behind the DNA precipitation, the role of water in DNA precipitation, the role of salt in DNA precipitation and the role of alcohol in DNA precipitation.

“Reaction between solute and solvent creates an insoluble solid substance, called as a precipitate and the process is termed as precipitation.”

DNA extraction is a very important step in genomic research and diagnosis. Purity and quantity of DNA always matter while performing any downstream applications. The purity and quantity of DNA depend on the chemical used in the extraction.

Alcohol is one of the important ingredients in DNA extraction. It is used in precipitation, washing and storing DNA.  Maniatis and Sambrook’s DNA extraction using the alcohol method is one of the popular methods of DNA extraction to date.

Read further on DNA extraction: Different types of DNA extraction methods

Alcohol along with the salt, precipitate DNA into a solid form.  Sodium acetate, sodium chloride and ammonium chloride are most routinely used salts in DNA extraction.

A precipitated DNA appears as like a threat of cotton inside the tube which is results from the chemical reaction between DNA, salt and alcohol. Commonly used alcohols for precipitation are ethanol, isopropanol and methanol.

Read more on the DNA precipitation: A Quick Guide On DNA Precipitation And DNA Precipitation Protocol

Ethanol is widely applicable for precipitation and washing of DNA, while methanol is not a good choice, but it can work if we have no other option.

Role of alcohol in DNA extraction

DNA is soluble in water. Similar chemical structure of solute and solvent, dissolve properly in each other, polar solution can dissolve in a polar and non-poplar solution can dissolve in non-polar solution. 

DNA is a polar molecule with the net negative charge on the backbone of it (PO3). For more detail on the structure of DNA read the article: DNA story: The structure and function of DNA

Water is also a polar solution with partial negative charge near the oxygen atom and partial positive charge near the hydrogen atom. So polar molecules like DNA can easily interact with water. electrostatically, free H+ of water and PO3– of DNA react with each other and makes DNA soluble in water.

DNA story: the structure and function of DNA

The image represents the double-stranded helical structure of DNA. Image credit: News medical and life science.

Additionally, DNA is hydrophilic in nature. Hydrophilic solutions are easily dissolved in water because it attracts water (Hydro means water & philic means to attract). Hydrophobic solutions repel water and unable to dissolve in water.

In DNA precipitation, a salt (sodium acetate) reacts with DNA, it breaks up into Naand (CH3COO), the positively charged sodium ion neutralize negatively charged PO3 of the DNA. Hydrophilic nature of DNA helps it to dissolve it in water but by reacting with sodium acetate, DNA becomes less hydrophilic. 

Here the role of alcohol is become very crucial for getting good quality precipitate of DNA. According to the coulombs low, force of attraction between two opposite charges is inversely proportional to the dielectric constant.”

Read further on dielectric constant: What is Dielectric Constant?

Water has a high dielectric constant as compared to alcohol hence it hinders in Na+ and PO3 binding. On the other hand, alcohol has a lower dielectric constant. So it protects Na+ and PO3 complex from the water.

The dielectric constant of water is ~80 while ethanol is ~24. So the chance of DNA to dissolve in alcohol is less as compared to the water.

Ethanol has both polar and non-polar group. It has a non-polar C2H and a polar OH  group. Conclusively, as per the coulombs law, the force of interaction between PO3 and Na+ increased, after the addition of alcohol.

Alcohol interacts with water by hydrogen bonding and makes the positive charge of water busy doing this. Hence alcohol protects the complex of PO3 and Na+  by neutralizing the charge of water. Collectively, the DNA is pulled out from the bottom of the tube as a White cottony thread like precipitate.


©Genetic Education Inc.

Generally, ethanol is frequently used in precipitation with a combination of sodium acetate. But if the quantity of the sample is very less then isopropanol is the best option.

Furthermore, alcohol is very useful in preserving DNA. Having non-reactive with DNA, alcohol works as a preservative. Precipitated DNA is collected into the alcohol-containing tube and deep froze depending upon the type of storage requirement (-4°C to -20°C for short-term storage and -194°C for long-term storage). 

Though precipitated forms of DNA is not useful for downstream practices, it is further very essential to dissolve DNA once again, after precipitation.

Dissolved DNA contains many impurities. The protein debris has still remained with DNA.  after addition of alcohol DNA remain is precipitated form but other proteins become dissolved in the homogenate. Alcohol can wash DNA by passing through DNA molecules and removes all impurities from DNA.

Attend class: Extrachromosomal inheritance

The impurities collected into the aqueous phase of alcohol and removed by draining. The process is repeated until clear pellet of DNA is not observed.  Precipitated DNA is re-dissolve in high pH solutions like TE buffer.

TE buffer has a higher pH than DNA so it dissolves DNA properly. Pure DNA solution is now ready for blotting and PCR.


Conclusively, the role of alcohol is very important in manual DNA extraction protocols such as phenol-chloroform DNA extraction, enzymatic DNA extraction method and CTAB DNA extraction method. Further, chilled ethanol can increase the yield of precipitated DNA. However, the exact mechanism behind using chilled ethanol is not exactly explained.

Comment in the comment box if any point is missing and lets me know about your thought on DNA precipitation.

Read further on PCR:

  1. A Complete Guide of the Polymerase Chain Reaction
  2. The Function of dNTPs in PCR reaction
  3. Role of DMSO in PCR: DMSO a PCR enhancer
  4. Function of taq DNA polymerase in PCR
  5. PCR primer design guidelines
  6. Role of MgCl2 in PCR reaction