To investigate the functions of RNA, RNA is routinely converted to more stable complementary DNA (cDNA) by reverse transcription (RT). cDNA allows further manipulations to study RNA using DNA-based techniques such as cloning, PCR, and sequencing, so reverse transcription is a crucial step in many RNA-based experimental workflows.

Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)

In RT-PCR, an RNA population is converted to cDNA by reverse transcription (RT), and then the cDNA is amplified by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) (Figure 1). The cDNA amplification step provides opportunities to further study the original RNA species, even when they are limited in amount or expressed in low abundance. Common applications of RT-PCR include detection of expressed genes, examination of transcript variants, and generation of cDNA templates for cloning and sequencing.

Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)
Figure 1. Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). RT = reverse transcription, RTase = reverse transcriptase.

Since reverse transcription provides cDNA templates for PCR amplification and downstream experiments, it is one of the most critical steps for experimental success. The reverse transcriptase selected should offer the highest efficiency even with challenging RNA samples, such as those that are degraded, have carryover inhibitors, or possess a high degree of secondary structure. (White paper:Engineered reverse transcriptase)

In performing RT-PCR, one-step and two-step methods are the two common approaches, each with its own advantages and disadvantages (Figure 2). As the name implies, one-step RT-PCR combines first-strand cDNA synthesis (RT) and subsequent PCR in a single reaction tube. This reaction setup simplifies workflow, reduces variation, and minimizes possible contamination. One-step RT-PCR allows easier processing of large numbers of samples, making it amenable to high-throughput applications. However, one-step RT-PCR uses gene-specific primers for amplification, limiting the analysis to a few genes per RNA sample. Since the reaction is a compromise between reverse transcription and amplification conditions, one-step RT-PCR could be less sensitive and less efficient in some scenarios. Nevertheless, use of a gene-specific primer in RT-PCR can help maximize the yield of the target cDNA and minimize background amplification. (White paper:Improved one-step RT-PCR system)

Two-step RT-PCR entails two separate reactions, beginning with first-strand cDNA synthesis (RT), followed by amplification of a portion of the resulting cDNA by PCR in a separate tube. Therefore, two-step RT-PCR is useful for detecting multiple genes in a single RNA sample. The separation of RT and PCR reactions allows for optimization of reaction conditions for each step, as well as flexibility with reverse transcription priming(oligo(dT) primers, random hexamers, or gene-specific primers) and PCR setup (e.g., DNA polymerase choice and PCR components). Compared to one-step RT-PCR, the disadvantages of two-step RT-PCR include multiple steps for an extended workflow, additional sample handling and processing, and increasing the chance of contamination and variation in results.

Table 1. Comparison of one-step and two-step RT-PCR

 One-step RT-PCRTwo-step RT-PCR
SetupCombined reaction under conditions that support both reverse transcription and PCRSeparate optimized reactions for reverse transcription and PCR
PrimersGene-specific primersChoice of oligo(dT), random hexamers, or gene-specific primers
Ideal useAnalysis of one or two genes; high-throughput platformsAnalysis of multiple genes
AdvantageConvenient, high-throughputFlexible

1-step vs. 2-step RT-PCR

Learn about differences between one-step vs. two-step RT-PCR and how to choose between them for your applications.

How to achieve highly specific one-step RT-PCR results

Learn about the mechanism of one-step RT-PCR, its challenges, and how to overcome them.

Quantitative RT-PCR (RT-qPCR)

One of the most common applications of quantitative RT-PCR (RT-qPCR) is quantitative analysis of mRNA levels over time, across cells and tissues, or after an event (e.g., drug treatment). Due to higher sensitivity than RT-PCR, RT-qPCR is also widely used to examine the presence of retroviruses (RNA viruses) in research samples. Similar to the RT-PCR workflow, RNA is first converted to cDNA, which is then amplified by PCR. The main difference, however, is that levels of amplified cDNA are measured by fluorescence in real time during the exponential phase of amplification. The amplification level is used as a basis to quantitate the original targets within the RNA population. (Learn more about quantitative PCR)

Reverse transcriptase's effects on Ct value

Learn about what a Ct value means, which factors can influence Ct values, and how to choose a reverse transcriptase to improve Ct values.

Overcoming RT-qPCR

Learn the top 5 reasons for variations in gene expression analysis by RT-qPCR and tips to overcome common RT mistakes and challenges.

The accuracy of the quantitation of gene expression by RT-qPCR depends heavily upon the quality and quantity of cDNA templates. Thus, the reverse transcription step is critical for success in RT-qPCR. The reverse transcription step should generate cDNA products that are representative of the original RNA population. The reverse transcriptase selected should therefore be able to synthesize cDNA efficiently, even with low-abundance genes and suboptimal and/or challenging RNA samples (e.g., high GC%, inhibitor presence, degradation). (Learn more about reverse transcriptase attributes) (App notes:Improved RT-qPCR analyses of plant samples and whole-blood RNA samples)

In addition to a highly efficient reverse transcriptase, there are a number of considerations in choosing reagents for the RT reaction. First, the dynamic range or linear amplification of cDNA over a broad range of input RNA is critical. The ability to obtain cDNA yields proportional to the amounts of input RNA ensures accurate quantitation of gene expression (Figure 3). (White paper:Engineered reverse transcriptase)

Linearity of qPCR results
Figure 3. Linearity of qPCR results subsequent to using RT master mixes across a range of total RNA input, for detection of (A) high-abundance and (B) low-abundance RNA targets. RNA input, ranging from 10 pg to 1 μg, was reverse-transcribed and subsequently amplified by PCR. Both master mixes generated cDNA proportional to the input RNA, but a higher yield was obtained from Master Mix 1 as indicated by lower (i.e., earlier) Ct values, especially with the low-abundance gene target.

Furthermore, the reagents selected should produce abundant and consistent cDNA yields among replicates in order to obtain gene expression results with high sensitivity and little variability (Figure 4). A single-tube master mix containing all necessary components for reverse transcription helps minimize experimental variation, cross-contamination, and pipetting errors. (White paper:Improved RT-qPCR master mix)

Sensitivity and variability of qPCR results subsequent to using different RT master mixes
Figure 4. Sensitivity and variability of qPCR results subsequent to using different RT master mixes, to detect (A) high-abundance and (B) low-abundance RNA targets. Among the reagents, Master Mix 1 produces qPCR results with the lowest average Ct and standard deviation from 30 experimental replicates, demonstrating the importance of reverse transcription reagent choice for reliable gene expression analysis.

One special procedure of RT-qPCR is direct reverse transcription from crude cell lysates without RNA isolation [1]. In experiments focusing on rare cells or events, using scarce samples, or selecting specific cells within populations, direct RT-qPCR may be considered to prevent potential sample loss and low RNA recovery. In the direct procedure, it is critical to inhibit endogenous RNases that would degrade RNA and to remove cellular genomic DNA during cell lysis. With optimized kits, sample preparation can be completed in as little as 7 minutes while providing signals from only a single cell. Highly processive reverse transcriptases are especially suited for reverse transcription of unpurified RNA extracts, because of their resistance to inhibitors and high sensitivity.

Real-time PCR with cells-to-Ct kits

Learn about how to run real-time PCR without RNA isolation.

cDNA cloning and library construction

One of the first applications of reverse transcriptase in molecular biology was the construction of cDNA libraries [2-4]. A cDNA library consists of cDNA clones that represent the transcribed sequences within a specific sample. Therefore, a library provides information about the temporal and spatial expression of genes for a given cell type, organ, or developmental stage, for example. The cDNA library clones are used in the characterization of novel RNA transcripts, determination of gene sequences, and expression of recombinant proteins.

Essential in constructing cDNA libraries is the proper representation of RNAs in their full length and/or their relative abundance, making the selection of a reverse transcriptase extremely important. Highly processive reverse transcriptases are capable of synthesizing long cDNAs as well as capturing low-abundance RNAs. Similarly, reverse transcriptases with increased thermostability are recommended for reverse-transcribing RNA with a high degree of secondary structure. (Learn more about reverse transcriptase attributes) (White paper:Engineered reverse transcriptase)

After reverse transcription, a number of approaches may be used to insert cDNA into a vector for cloning. The double-stranded cDNAs after second-strand synthesis often have blunt ends and can be cloned into blunt-ended vectors (Figure 5A). Although this approach involves fewer steps, blunt-end cloning may result in less efficient ligation and loss of directionality after insertion. (Learn more about cloning workflow)

Alternatively, cDNA ends may be modified to include additional nucleotides of known sequences. For example, to modify the 5′ end of cDNA, oligo(dT) primers with additional 5′ nucleotides can be used to initiate reverse transcription; to modify the 3′ end, short DNA oligos called linkers or adapters with desired sequences may be ligated (Figure 5B). In this manner, sites for directional insertion (e.g., restriction and homologous recombination), promoter binding (e.g., T3 and T7 sequences), and affinity purification (e.g., biotin and His tags) can be readily incorporated into the cDNA sequence. (Learn more about DNA library construction)

In another popular strategy, the 3′ ends of cDNA inserts and vectors are enzymatically extended with complementary homopolymeric tails. Using terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT) and a single dNTP, a string of 20–30 nucleotides can be added to an insert, and a similar string of complementary nucleotides added to a vector (e.g., Cs on the insert and Gs on the vector), enabling the vector and insert tails to anneal to each other (Figure 5C). Ligation is not required because the gaps are repaired inside the bacteria after transformation.

When the target sequence is known, the insert may be generated by RT-PCR for cloning of a specific region of a cDNA (Figure 5D). (Learn more about PCR cloning)

Rapid amplification of cDNA ends (RACE)

Rapid amplification of cDNA ends (RACE) is a PCR-based method for determining unknown sequences at the 5′ and 3′ ends of cDNA [5]. These methods are commonly known as 5′ RACE and 3′ RACE, respectively. The experimental goals of RACE include identification of 5′ and 3′ untranslated regions, investigation of heterogeneous transcriptional start sites, characterization of promoter regions, determination of complete cDNA sequences, and sequencing of complete open reading frames (ORFs) for protein expression.

PCR with single-sided specificity (also known as one-sided or anchored PCR [6,7]) is employed to amplify the unknown regions of cDNA as RACE products. 5′ RACE relies on extension of the 5′ end with an oligonucleotide for PCR primer binding, while 3′ RACE takes advantage of the poly(A) tail of mRNA as a generic priming site for PCR (Figure 6).

In 5′ RACE (Figure 6A), mRNA of a specific sequence or related family is reverse-transcribed into the first-strand cDNA using a gene-specific primer. The 3′ end of the cDNA is then extended with a homopolymeric tail (usually a string of Cs) by terminal deoxynucleotide transferase (TdT), or is ligated to an oligonucleotide adapter. Thereafter, two rounds of semi-nested PCR are performed to amplify the region with the 5′ unknown sequence. PCR also allows end-extension of amplicons via primers for downstream applications, such as restriction site introduction for directional cloning and universal sequencing primer binding sites for sequencing.

In 3′ RACE (Figure 6B), mRNA is reverse-transcribed to cDNA using an oligo(dT) primer with an adapter sequence. Two rounds of semi-nested PCR are then performed using primers specific to known upstream exon sequences and the adapter sequences introduced through the oligo(dT) primer. In this manner, unknown 3´ mRNA sequences between the exons and the poly(A) tail are amplified for further analysis.

The quality of input RNA and setup of the reverse transcription reaction are critical for successful RACE experiments. In 5′ RACE, first-strand cDNAs of any length (i.e., even those not reaching the 5′ end of the mRNA) will possess the added sequence (i.e., homopolymeric tail or adapter) and subsequently be amplified in PCR. To maximize full-length cDNA synthesis, reverse transcriptases with minimal RNase H activity, high processivity, and high thermostability should be selected. (Learn more about reverse transcriptase attributes)

Alternatively, designing the gene-specific primers to bind close to the 5′ end of the mRNA can facilitate the capture of the unknown 5′ end sequence, due to the shorter distance to reverse-transcribe during the cDNA synthesis step. Similarly, a procedural modification can be considered to select RNA with a 5′ 7-methylguanosine (7mG) cap that represents mature, full-length eukaryotic mRNA for reverse transcription (Figure 7) [8,9].

With 3′ RACE, full-length cDNA is not critical because sequences that are upstream of the PCR priming site are not amplified. Nevertheless, a reverse transcriptase that can generate long cDNA is preferred, since cDNA falling short of reaching the PCR primer’s binding site will not be represented in RACE analyses.

Gene expression microarrays

Development of DNA microarrays during the 1990s opened up large-scale profiling of gene expression without bias or prior hypothesis. Microarrays consist of thousands of chambers, known as “features” or “spots”, on glass or silicon wafers. Each feature contains, immobilized on its surface, identical copies of a single-stranded DNA sequence called a “probe”, which represent one gene. The probes hybridize to fluorescently labeled cDNA targets that are applied to the microarray, allowing simultaneous comparison of gene expression between two samples (Figures 8 and 9) [10-12].

Gene expression microarray chip
Figure 8. Gene expression microarray chip.

Microarray probes are generated from known sequences of the genome or cDNA of an organism. For example, PCR can be used to make copies of every known gene, products of which are then denatured to single-stranded DNA and spotted onto a chip as immobilized probes. Alternatively, oligonucleotides of 20–60 nt can be synthesized directly on a chip as microarray probes [13].

Figure 9 gives an overview of how microarrays are used for differential gene expression analysis. First, total RNA or mRNA is isolated from two samples—experimental (also called “test” or “treated”) and control (also called “reference” or “normal”). The purified RNA samples are then converted to cDNA and labeled with different fluorescent dyes. Next, the labeled cDNA targets of both samples are mixed and allowed to hybridize to the probes on one microarray chip. After unbound targets are washed away, the microarray is scanned to detect the labeled fluorophores. The ratios of the two fluorescent signals are then analyzed to quantify expression of genes affected by the experimental conditions.

cDNA targets can be labeled either during or after reverse transcription (Figure 10). In direct labeling, fluorescently labeled nucleotides are incorporated during cDNA synthesis. Alternatively, in indirect labeling, nucleotides modified to enable conjugation may be used in reverse transcription, and then the cDNAs are subsequently labeled with fluorophores. Although the indirect method involves a longer workflow, the fluorescence labeling tends to be more efficient [14].

When lower amounts of input RNA are available (e.g., 10–100 ng), RNA may be reverse-transcribed to double-stranded cDNA using T7-oligo(dT) promoter primers. The subsequent cDNAs are then amplified by in vitro transcription (Figure 11). During in vitro transcription, RNA may be labeled directly or indirectly using modified ribonucleotides. Alternatively, amplified RNA may be reverse-transcribed and labeled to generate the cDNA targets [15].

Amplification of RNA by conversion to cDNA followed by in vitro transcription from an added promoter sequence

Figure 11. Amplification of RNA by conversion to cDNA followed by in vitro transcription from an added promoter sequence.

In selecting a reverse transcriptase for preparation of cDNA targets for microarray experiments, the ability to obtain full-length cDNAs in high yields, even when RNA sequences have high GC content or secondary structure, is critical for good coverage of the RNA populations. Equally important, the reverse transcriptase must be able to incorporate modified nucleotides efficiently in order to ensure high signal-to-background ratios that enable accurate and unbiased detection of the input RNA populations. (Learn more about reverse transcriptase attributes) (White paper:Engineered reverse transcriptase)

RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq)

RNA sequencing, or RNA-Seq, is commonly performed to gain insight into RNAs transcribed from the genome and their regulation. With the advent of next-generation sequencing (NGS), RNA-Seq has become a high-throughput approach for analysis of the whole transcriptome (i.e., coding and long noncoding RNA species that have been transcribed), determination of gene expression, discovery of splice variants and fusion transcripts, and detection of low-abundance genes [16,17]. Advantages of RNA-Seq over microarrays include greater dynamic range, higher sensitivity, and the ability to characterize RNA sequences without prior genomic information.

Reverse transcription is involved in the preparation of templates for RNA-Seq, since most sequencing platforms are designed for DNA. It is desirable that the resulting cDNA population represent the original RNA population, including the low-abundance transcripts, with minimum bias. Full-length cDNA synthesis is also important, to capture all RNA sequences in the sample. The error rate of reverse transcription may be critical, depending on the sequencing library size and data quality. Therefore, the reverse transcriptase should be selected with careful consideration. (Learn more about reverse transcriptase attributes)

Research goals and sequencing technologies will dictate the order and method of RNA-Seq template preparation [18,19]. Nevertheless, a typical workflow for generating a library for sequencing includes enrichment of the RNA of interest, fragmentation of RNA or cDNA, reverse transcription, addition of sequencing adapters (and indices or barcodes, if multiplexing), and optional PCR amplification of the library (Figure 12).

Traditional workflow of RNA sequencing
Figure 12. Traditional workflow of RNA sequencing.

To enrich a sample for mRNA, ribosomal RNA (rRNA), which makes up about 80% of total RNA, is routinely depleted from the sample to improve the sequencing data for the transcriptome. Poly(A) tails are often present in eukaryotic mRNA and long noncoding RNA, so magnetic beads with covalently bound oligo(dT) offer an alternative strategy for effective enrichment of these mRNAs. In contrast, rRNA depletion is a preferred method to enrich prokaryotic mRNAs, since they do not have poly(A) tails that can be exploited to isolate them. For small RNAs (<200 nt), a size selection or specialized isolation method may be performed on the sample instead.

Fragmentation is performed before or after reverse transcription (i.e., on RNA or double-stranded cDNA), depending on the experimental goals and sequencing platforms (Figures 12, 13). Fragments of 200–500 nt are prepared for compatibility with NGS technologies to ensure high-quality reads. Means of fragmentation include mechanical (e.g., sonication, nebulization), chemical (e.g., hydrolysis), and enzymatic (e.g., RNase III, DNase I).

To examine the orientation or the sense/antisense property of the transcripts (called “strandedness”), RNA fragments may be manipulated prior to reverse transcription, such as by end-tagging with differentiating adapters. Alternatively, dUTP may be used in second-strand cDNA synthesis to specifically mark the complementary strand of the first-strand cDNA (Figure 13) [20].

Strand-specific RNA sequencing
Figure 13. Strand-specific RNA sequencing.

The adapter sequences at the fragment ends serve as attachments to the sequencing platform. These adapters are added directly or via specially designed primers during cDNA synthesis or amplification. In addition to the adapters, barcode or index sequences may be incorporated by PCR for sequencing of multiple samples at the same time (multiplexing). When the available starting amounts of RNA are low, PCR helps to generate adequate amounts of input cDNA for sequencing. (Learn more about PCR in sequencing)

Benefits of visual feedback during RNA-seq library preparation

Learn how color dyes can help you keep track of RNA sequencing library perpetration steps.

For sequencing analysis, the transcriptome data may be assembled using either a genome-guided or de novo strategy, depending upon availability of the reference genome. The genome-guided approach maps the sequencing results to the known genome sequence, whereas the de novo strategy derives results by contig assembly, which requires extensive computing power [21]. (Learn more about shotgun sequencing)

As described in this section, reverse transcription is integral to the workflows of cDNA-based applications. It is important to choose a reverse transcription method and enzyme that are most applicable to your research objectives.

Reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP)

RT-LAMP is a fast, simple, and sensitive solution for RNA and DNA detection, with several methods for evaluating results. Due to its simple workflow and fast reaction time, it is especially useful in field settings for detection and surveillance of viral pathogens.

The LAMP method relies on DNA polymerase with a strong strand-displacement activity, and specifically designed inner and outer primers as well as loop primers. For amplification of RNA targets, a one-step reaction can be carried out by simply adding a reverse transcriptase to a LAMP reaction (RT-LAMP).

LAMP occurs at a constant temperature (60–65°C) and is classified as isothermal amplification. Target RNA or DNA can be amplified in less than 30 minutes. The LAMP technique requires 4 or 6 specially designed primers that bind to two distinct target regions (~300 bp apart). LAMP was originally developed using 4 primers, but subsequent addition of two loop primers reduced reaction time in half. Primers needed for LAMP include two outer (F3 and B3) primers, two inner primers (forward inner primer (FIP) and backward inner primer (BIP), and loop primers (loop forward (Loop F) and loop backward (Loop B).

LAMP occurs in two steps—noncyclic and auto-cyclic. The first step is primer extension from the inner primer (FIP), which hybridizes to the target DNA and starts complementary strand synthesis. This is followed by strand invasion extension from the outer primer (F3), releasing single-stranded DNA that serves as a template for the backward primers. The converted inner sequence forms a stem-loop structure at the F-linked end. The same process is repeated on the other end with BIP and B3 primers, resulting in a dumbbell structure with stem-loops on both the 3′ and 5′ ends as they become complementary to sequences further inwards (enabling the formation of a stem-loop DNA structure). This structure contains multiple sites for repeated amplification initiation and facilitates DNA amplification by auto-cycling, resulting in multiple lengths and cauliflower-like structures of amplified DNA.

Simplified Isothermal DNA Amplification process using 3 pairs of primers

Figure 14. Isothermal DNA amplification (simplified)—Primers (3 pairs): FIP/BIP, F3/BIP and Loop FB­. Target sequence important for loop formation; “c” stand for complementary (e.g., F1c is complementary to F1).

Advantages of RT-LAMP

  • Doesn’t require thermal cycler (only heating block)
  • Fast turnaround time (15-60 minutes)
  • Multiple options for detection
  • Simplified workflow
  • Higher tolerance to inhibitors
  • Adaptability for field testing

RT-LAMP requires only low quantities of RNA or DNA, is tolerant of inhibitors, and offers easy handling as well as good specificity and sensitivity. Amplification under isothermal conditions removes the need for a thermal cycler and offers higher amplification efficiency, as there is no need to wait for temperature changes. Because of these qualities, LAMP technology has undergone exponential growth in its applications since its discovery. RT-LAMP is used in laboratories for faster detection of pathogens (bacteria, parasites, and viruses). Due to its simplicity, it is also a key method for adaptability to field or point-of-care settings. RT-LAMP is also an ideal solution for pandemic conditions, because it requires only simple equipment yet provides specificity and immediate evaluation of results. This means surveillance can be performed in nonstandard settings such as testing centers, airports, schools, etc. As RT-LAMP advances, it could be made into multiplex assays, mobile biosensors, or portable lateral flow assays. It can also be applied in the early detection of genetic diseases. Furthermore, to increase RT-LAMP sensitivity and specificity, technologies that combine RT-LAMP and CRISPR, and similar, are emerging, opening additional opportunities for new applications. Overall, the advantages offered by RT-LAMP have potential for development of testing on site, in the field, or in diagnostic settings.


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