An oligonucleotide (from Greek prefix oligo-, "having few, having little") is a short nucleic acid polymer, typically with fifty or fewer bases. Although they can be formed by bond cleavage of longer segments, they are now more commonly synthesized, in a sequence-specific manner, from individual nucleoside phosphoramidites. Automated synthesizers allow the synthesis of oligonucleotides up to about 200 bases.
Oligonucleotides are characterized by the sequence of nucleotide residues that comprise the entire molecule. The length of the oligonucleotide is usually denoted by "mer" (from Greek meros, "part"). For example, a fragment of 25 bases would be called a 25-mer. Oligonucleotides readily bind, in a sequence-specific manner, to their respective complementary oligonucleotides, DNA, or RNA to form duplexes or, less often, hybrids of a higher order. This basic property serves as a foundation for the use of oligonucleotides as probes for detecting DNA or RNA. Examples of procedures that use oligonucleotides include DNA microarrays, Southern blots, ASO analysis, fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), and the synthesis of artificial genes.
Oligonucleotides composed of 2'-deoxyribonucleotides (oligodeoxyribonucleotides) are fragments of DNA and are often used in the polymerase chain reaction, a procedure that can greatly amplify almost any small amount of DNA. There, the oligonucleotide is referred to as a primer, allowing DNA polymerase to extend the oligonucleotide and replicate the complementary strand.