Introduction to RT-qPCR

RNA as the Starting Material

Quantitative reverse transcription PCR (RT-qPCR) is used when the starting material is RNA. In this method, RNA is first transcribed into complementary DNA (cDNA) by reverse transcriptase from total RNA or messenger RNA (mRNA). The cDNA is then used as the template for the qPCR reaction. RT-qPCR is used in a variety of applications including gene expression analysis, RNAi validation, microarray validation, pathogen detection, genetic testing, and disease research.

One-step vs. Two-step RT-qPCR

RT-qPCR can be performed in a one-step or a two-step assay (Figure 1, Table 1). One-step assays combine reverse transcription and PCR in a single tube and buffer, using a reverse transcriptase along with a DNA polymerase. One-step RT-qPCR only utilizes sequence-specific primers. In two-step assays, the reverse transcription and PCR steps are performed in separate tubes, with different optimized buffers, reaction conditions, and priming strategies.

Figure 1. One-Step vs. Two-Step RT-qPCR.

Table 1. Advantages and Disadvantages when using one-step versus two-step assays in RT-qPCR

  Advantages Disadvantages
  • Less experimental variation since both reactions take place in the same tube
  • Fewer pipetting steps reduces risk of contamination
  • Suitable for high throughput amplification/screening 
  • Fast and highly reproducible
  • Impossible to optimize the two reactions separately
  • Less sensitive than two-step because the reaction conditions are a compromise between the two combined reactions
  • Detection of fewer targets per sample
  • A stable cDNA pool is generated that can be stored for long periods of time and used for multiple reactions
  • The target and reference genes can be amplified from the same cDNA pool without multiplexing
  • Optimized reaction buffers and reaction conditions can be used for each individual reaction
  • Flexible priming options
  • The use of several tubes and pipetting steps exposes the reaction to a greater risk of DNA contamination
    Time consuming
  • Requires more optimization than one-step

Reverse Transcription in RT-qPCR

Choosing total RNA vs. mRNA

When designing a RT-qPCR assay it is important to decide whether to use total RNA or purified mRNA as the template for reverse transcription. mRNA may provide slightly more sensitivity, but total RNA is often used because it has important advantages over mRNA as a starting material. First, fewer purification steps are required, which ensures a more quantitative recovery of the template and a better ability to normalize the results to the starting number of cells. Second, by avoiding any mRNA enrichment steps, one avoids the possibility of skewed results due to different recovery yields for different mRNAs. Taken together, total RNA is more suitable to use in most cases since relative quantification of the targets is more important for most applications than the absolute sensitivity of detection1.

Primers for Reverse Transcription

Three different approaches can be used for priming cDNA reactions in two-step assays: oligo(dT) primers, random primers, or sequence specific primers (Figure 2, Table 2). Often, a mixture of oligo(dT)s and random primers is used. These primers anneal to the template mRNA strand and provide reverse transcriptase enzymes a starting point for synthesis.

Table 2. Primer considerations for the cDNA synthesis step of RT-qPCR. Combining random primers and anchored oligo(dT) primers improves the reverse transcription efficiency and qPCR sensitivity.

Primer Options Structure and Function Advantages Disadvantages
Oligo(dT)s (or anchored oligo(dT)s) Stretch of thymine residues that anneal to poly(A) tail of mRNA; anchored oligo(dT)s contain one G, C, or A (the anchor) residue at the 3′ end
  • Generation of full length cDNA from poly(A)-tailed mRNA
  • Good to use if little starting material is available
  • Anchor ensures that the oligo(dT) primer binds at the 5′ end of the poly(A) tail of mRNA
  • Only amplify gene with a poly(A) tail
  • Truncated cDNA from priming internal poly(A) sites*2
  • Bias towards 3′ end*
*Minimized if anchored oligo(dT)s are used
Random Primers Six to nine bases long, they anneal at multiple points along RNA transcript
  • Anneal to all RNA (tRNA, rRNA, and mRNA)
  • Good to use for transcripts with significant secondary structures, or if little starting material is available
  • High cDNA yield
  • cDNA is made from all RNAs which is not always desirable and can dilute mRNA signal
  • Truncated cDNA
Sequence Specific Primers Custom made primers that target specific mRNA sequence
  • Specific cDNA pool
  • Increased sensitivity
  • Use reverse qPCR primer
  • Synthesis is limited to one gene of interest

Reverse Transcriptase Enzymes

Reverse Transcriptase is the enzyme that makes DNA from RNA. Some enzymes have RNase activity to degrade the RNA strand in the RNA-DNA hybrid after transcription. If an enzyme does not possess RNase activity, an RNaseH may be added for better qPCR efficiency. Commonly used enzymes include Moloney murine leukemia virus reverse transcriptase and Avian myeloblastosis virus reverse transcriptase. For RT-qPCR, it is ideal to choose a reverse transcriptase with high thermal stability, because this allows cDNA synthesis to be performed at higher temperatures, ensuring successful transcription of RNA with high levels of secondary structure, while maintaining their full activity throughout the reaction producing higher cDNA yields.

RNase H Activity of Reverse Transcriptase

RNase H activity degrades RNA from RNA-DNA duplexes to allow efficient synthesis of double-stranded DNA. However, with long mRNA templates, RNA may be degraded prematurely resulting in truncated cDNA. Hence, it is generally beneficial to minimize RNase H activity when aiming to produce long transcripts for cDNA cloning. In contrast, reverse transcriptases with intrinsic RNase H activity are often favored in qPCR applications because they enhance the melting of RNA-DNA duplex during the first cycles of PCR (Figure 3).

cDNA Synthesis in a Thermal Cycler

This step is recommended if the RNA template has a high degree of secondary structure.

This step is recommended for extending primers.

Reverse Transcriptase makes a complement DNA strand to the mRNA template.

This step prevents qPCR inhibition by active reverse transcriptase.

This step is recommended if the RNA template has a high degree of secondary structure.

This step is recommended for extending primers.

Reverse Transcriptase makes a complement DNA strand to the mRNA template.

This step prevents qPCR inhibition by active reverse transcriptase.


Primer Design

PCR primers for the qPCR step of RT-qPCR should ideally be designed to span an exon-exon junction, with one of the amplification primers potentially spanning the actual exon-intron boundary (Figure 4). This design reduces the risk of false positives from amplification of any contaminating genomic DNA, since the intron-containing genomic DNA sequence would not be amplified.

If primers cannot be designed to separate exons or exon-exon boundaries, it is necessary to treat the RNA sample with RNase-free DNase I or dsDNase in order to remove contaminating genomic DNA.

Controls for RT-qPCR

A minus Reverse Transcription control (-RT control) should be included in all RT-qPCR experiments to test for contaminating DNA (such as genomic DNA or PCR product from a previous run). Such a control contains all the reaction components except for the reverse transcriptase. Reverse transcription should not occur in this control, so if PCR amplification is seen, it is most likely derived from contaminating DNA.


  1. Bustin S. (ed) (2004) A-Z of Quantitative PCR. IUL Biotechnology Series, International University Line, La Jolla, California.