Imagine that you are a scientist interested in cloning gene A. You’ve just amplified the entire gene A including some flanking sequence by PCR and run the resulting amplicon onto a 2% gel with a 100 bp ladder. See the results in Figure 1.
Happy with your result, you clone the DNA into a cloning vector, pCR2.1 where you can make up tons of DNA to work with. These cloning vectors are great for making lots of DNA, but they do not express any of the genes as proteins (i.e. the DNA is replicated, but not transcribed and translated.) Because you do want to express protein, you need to subclone your gene from the cloning vector into an expression vector. To complicate matters, the gene needs to go into the expression vector with the promoter upstream of the gene and the poly A signal downstream of the gene (See Figure 2). The promoter is the location that the RNA polymerase binds to transcribe the gene, the polyA site is what signals the polymerase to add a polyA tail to the mRNA.
In order to clone your gene into the expression vector, you decide to determine the direction that your gene has inserted into pCR2.1. To do this, you take advantage of the fact that there is a NotI site off-center in the insert and also one in the plasmid (See Figure 3). Gene A is just under 900bp long in total, the Not I site is located at position 800bp.
You cut the plasmid with NotI expecting either an ~800bp band or a ~100bp band depending upon the orientation of the insert. The results of your digest are seen in figure 4, leading you to believe that your insert is in the direction seen in figure 5.
In order to subclone from the cloning vector into the expression vector (figure 6), you cut the gene out of pCR2.1 with SpeI and NsiI and isolate the ~900 bp fragment. The same two enzymes can be used to open the expression vector and isolate the linear plasmid. The two fragments can then be combined in the presence of DNA ligase to complete the subcloning.