What is RT-qPCR?

Quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, also called RT-qPCR, is used to detect and quantify RNA. Total RNA or mRNA is first transcribed into complementary DNA (cDNA). The cDNA is then used as the template for the quantitative PCR or real-time PCR reaction (qPCR). In qPCR, the amount of amplification product is measured in each PCR cycle using fluorescence. 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.

Learn more: One-step vs. two-step RT-qPCR

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

  • 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 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 helps ensure 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 can avoid 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 detection [1].

Explore: Total RNA isolation

Primers for reverse transcription

To initiate reverse transcription, a short DNA oligonucleotide called a primer is required to anneal to the template RNA strand and provide reverse transcriptase a starting point for synthesis. Four different approaches can be used for priming cDNA reactions in two-step assays: oligo(dT) primers, random primers, or sequence specific primers (Figure 2 and Table 2). Often, a mixture of oligo(dT)s and random primers is used. Combining random primers and anchored oligo(dT) primers to diminish the generation of truncated cDNAs can help improve the reverse transcription efficiency and qPCR sensitivity.

Table 2. Primer considerations for the cDNA synthesis step of RT-qPCR

Primer optionsStructure and functionAdvantagesDisadvantages
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 primersSix 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 primersCustom 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 (RT) is the enzyme that makes DNA from RNA. Some reverse transcriptases have RNase activity to degrade the RNA strand in the RNA-DNA hybrid after transcription. If an enzyme does not possess RNase activity, an RNase H 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, helping ensure successful transcription of RNA with high levels of secondary structure, while maintaining their full activity throughout the reaction to help produce higher cDNA yields.

Explore: Reverse transcription enzymes

RNase H activity of reverse transcriptase

RNase H activity degrades RNA from RNA-DNA duplexes to enable efficient synthesis of double-stranded DNA. However, with long mRNA templates, RNA may be degraded prematurely which can result 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 can enhance the melting of RNA-DNA duplex during the first cycles of PCR (Figure 3).

Primer design and controls for accurate quantitation in RT-qPCR

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 can help reduce the risk of false positives from amplification of any contaminating genomic DNA, since the intron-containing genomic DNA sequence would not be amplified.

Note: 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 transcriptase control (“no 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.