The Meselson–Stahl experiment was an experiment by Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl with some additional help from a Canadian biologist, Mason MacDonald, and Canadian nuclear physicist, Amandeep Sehmbi, in 1958 which supported the hypothesis that DNA replication was semiconservative. In semiconservative replication, when the double stranded DNA helix is replicated, each of the two new double-stranded DNA helices consisted of one strand from the original helix and one newly synthesized. It has been called "the most beautiful experiment in biology." Meselson and Stahl decided the best way to tag the parent DNA would be to change one of the atoms in the parent DNA molecule. Since nitrogen is found in the nitrogenous bases of each nucleotide, they decided to use an isotope of nitrogen to distinguish between parent and newly copied DNA. The isotope of nitrogen had an extra neutron in the nucleus, which made it heavier.
Nitrogen is a major constituent of DNA. 14N is by far the most abundant isotope of nitrogen, but DNA with the heavier (but non-radioactive) 15N isotope is also functional.
E. coli was grown for several generations in a medium containing NH4Cl with 15N. When DNA is extracted from these cells and centrifuged on a salt density gradient, the DNA separates out at the point at which its density equals that of the salt solution. The DNA of the cells grown in 15N medium had a higher density than cells grown in normal 14N medium. After that, E. coli cells with only 15N in their DNA were transferred to a 14N medium and were allowed to divide; the progress of cell division was monitored by microscopic cell counts and by colony assay.
DNA was extracted periodically and was compared to pure 14N DNA and 15N DNA. After one replication, the DNA was found to have intermediate density. Since conservative replication would result in equal amounts of DNA of the higher and lower densities (but no DNA of an intermediate density), conservative replication was excluded. However, this result was consistent with both semiconservative and dispersive replication. Semiconservative replication would result in double-stranded DNA with one strand of 15N DNA, and one of 14N DNA, while dispersive replication would result in double-stranded DNA with both strands having mixtures of 15N and 14N DNA, either of which would have appeared as DNA of an intermediate density.
The authors continued to sample cells as replication continued. DNA from cells after two replications had been completed was found to consist of equal amounts of DNA with two different densities, one corresponding to the intermediate density of DNA of cells grown for only one division in 14N medium, the other corresponding to DNA from cells grown exclusively in 14N medium. This was inconsistent with dispersive replication, which would have resulted in a single density, lower than the intermediate density of the one-generation cells, but still higher than cells grown only in 14N DNA medium, as the original 15N DNA would have been split evenly among all DNA strands. The result was consistent with the semiconservative replication hypothesis.