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A restriction enzyme or restriction endonuclease is an enzyme that cuts DNA at or near specific recognition nucleotide sequences known as restriction sites. Restriction enzymes are commonly classified into four types, which differ in their structure and whether they cut their DNA substrate at their recognition site, or if the recognition and cleavage sites are separate from one another. To cut DNA, all restriction enzymes make two incisions, once through each sugar-phosphate backbone (i.e. each strand) of the DNA double helix.
These enzymes are found in bacteria and archaea and provide a defense mechanism against invading viruses. Inside a prokaryote, the restriction enzymes selectively cut up foreign DNA in a process called restriction; meanwhile, host DNA is protected by a modification enzyme (a methyltransferase) that modifies the prokaryotic DNA and blocks cleavage. Together, these two processes form the restriction modification system.
Over 3000 restriction enzymes have been studied in detail, and more than 600 of these are available commercially. These enzymes are routinely used for DNA modification in laboratories, and are a vital tool in molecular cloning.