Imagine you are traveling in your car and must pass through a mountain range to get to your destination. You’ve been following a set of directions when you realize you have a decision to make. Will you stay on your current route, which is many miles shorter but contains a long tunnel that cuts straight through the mountains and obstructs your view? Or will you switch to a longer, more scenic route that bypasses the tunnel ahead and gets you to your destination a bit later than you wanted?
Choosing which route to take illustrates a clear trade-off that has to be considered—which is more valuable, speed or understanding? Yes, the tunnel gets you from one place to another faster. But what are you missing as a result? Is it worth a little extra time to see the majestic landscape that you are passing through?
Considering this trade-off is especially critical for researchers working with human DNA purified from formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded (FFPE) or circulating cell-free DNA (ccfDNA) samples for next-generation sequencing (NGS). These sample types present a few challenges when performing NGS. FFPE samples are prone to degradation, while ccfDNA samples are susceptible to gDNA contamination, and both offer a very limited amount of starting material to work with.
Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, Douglas R. Storts, PhD, head of Research, Nucleic Acid Technologies, Promega Corporation.
Massively parallel sequencing (MPS), also called next generation sequencing (NGS), has the potential to alleviate some of the biggest challenges facing forensic laboratories, namely degraded DNA and samples containing DNA from multiple contributors. Unlike capillary electrophoresis, MPS genotyping methods do not require fluorescently-labeled oligonucleotides to distinguish amplification products of similar size. Furthermore, it is not necessary to design primers within a color channel to generate amplicons of different sizes to avoid allele overlap. Consequently, all the amplicons can be of a similar, small size (typically <275 base pairs). The small size of the amplicons is particularly advantageous when working with degraded DNA. Because the alleles are distinguished by the number of repeats and the DNA sequence, additional information can be derived from a sample. This can be especially important when genotyping mixtures. As previously demonstrated (1), this sequence variation can help distinguish stutter “peaks” from minor contributor alleles.
Because there is no reliance upon size and fluorescent label, significantly greater multiplexing is possible with MPS approaches. In addition to autosomal short tandem repeats (STRs), we can also sequence Y-STRs, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and the mitochondrial DNA control region. The advantage to this approach is the forensic analyst does not need a priori knowledge whether a sample would benefit most from the different methods of genotyping.
Despite these major advantages, there are limitations to the near-term, broad deployment of current MPS technology into forensic laboratories. The limitations fall into four main categories: Workflow, costs, performance with forensically-relevant samples, and community guidelines. Continue reading →
Real-Time (or quantitative, qPCR) monitors PCR amplification as it happens and allows you to measure starting material in your reaction.
This the last in a series of four blogs about Quantitation for NGS is written by guest blogger Adam Blatter, Product Specialist in Integrated Solutions at Promega.
When it comes to nucleic acid quantitation, real-time or quantitative (qPCR) is considered the gold standard because of its unmatched performance in senstivity, specificity and accuracy. qPCR relies on thermal cycling, consisting of repeated cycles of heating an cooling for DNA melting and enzyamtic replication. Detection instrumentation is capable of measuring the accumulation of DNA product after each round of amplification in real time.
Because PCR amplifies specific regions of DNA, the method is highly sensitive, specific to DNA, and it can determine whether a sample is truly able to be amplified. Degraded DNA or free nucleotides, which might otherwise skew your quantiation, will not contribute to the signal, and your measurement will be more accurate.
However, while qPCR does provide technical advantages, the method requires special instrumentation, specialized reagents and is a more time-consuming process. In addition, you will probably need to optimize your qPCR assay for each of your targets to achieve your desired results.
Because of the added complexity and cost, qPCR is a technique suited for post-library quantitation when you need to know the exact amount of amplifiable, adapter-ligated DNA. PCR is the only method capable of specifically targeting these library constructs over other DNA that may be present. This specificity is important because accurate normalization is especially critical for producing even coverage in multiplex experiments where equimolar amounts of several libraries are added to a pooled sample. This normalization process is essential if your are screening for rare variants that might be lost in background and go undetected if underrepresented in a mixed pool.
Fluorescent dye-based quantitation uses specially designed DNA binding compounds that intercalate only with double stranded DNA molecules. When excited by a specific wavelength of light, only dye in the DNA-bound state will fluoresce. These aspects of the technique contribute to low background signal, and therefore the ability to accurately and specifically detect very low quantities of DNA in solution, even the nanogram quantities used in NGS applications.
For commercial NGS systems, such as the Nextera Rapid Capture Enrichment Protocol by Illumina, this specificity and sensitivity of quantitation are critical. The Nextera protocol is optimized for 50ng of total genomic DNA. A higher mass input of genomic DNA can result in incomplete tagmentation, and larger insert sizes, which can adversely affect enrichment. A lower mass input of genomic DNA or low-quality DNA can generate smaller than expected inserts, which can be lost during subsequent cleanup steps, giving lower diversity of inserts. Continue reading →
Perhaps the most ubiquitous quantitation method is UV-spectrophotometry (also called absorbance spectroscopy). This technique takes advantage of the Beer-Lambert Law: an observation that many compounds absorb UV-Visible light at unique wavelengths, and that for a fixed path length the absorbance of a solution is directly proportional to the concentration of the absorbing species. DNA, for example has a peak absorbance at 260nm (A260nm).
This method is user friendly, quick and easy. But, it has significant limitations, especially when quantitating samples for NGS applications. Continue reading →
This series of blogs about Quantitation for NGS is written by guest blogger Adam Blatter, Product Specialist in Integrated Solutions at Promega.
As sequencing technology races toward ever cheaper, faster and more accurate ways to read entire genomes, we find ourselves able to study biological systems at a level never before possible. From basic science to translational research, massively parallel sequencing (also known as next-generation sequencing or NGS) has opened up new avenues of inquiry in genomics, oncology and ecology.
Many commercial sequencing platforms have been established (e.g., Illumina, IonTorrent, 454, PacBio), and new technologies are developed every day to enable new and unique applications. However, all of these platforms and technologies work off the same general principle: nucleic acid must be extracted from a sample, arranged into platform-specific library constructs, and loaded into the sequencer. Regardless of the sample type or the platform used, every step throughout this workflow is critical for successful results. An often overlooked part of the NGS workflow is sample quantitation. Here we are presenting the first in a series of four short blogs about the critical step of quantitation in NGS workflows.
Sample input is critical to NGS in terms of both quality and quantity. Knowing how much DNA you have, often in nanogram quantities, can make the difference between success and failure. There are several key points in the NGS workflow where sample quantitation is important before you can proceed:
After initial nucleic acid extraction from the sample matrix and before proceeding with library preparation
Post-library preparation when pooling barcoded libraries for multiplexing
Final pooled library quantitation immediately before loading for sequencing
There are several common methods for quantitating nucleic acids: UV-spectroscopy, Fluorescence spectoscopy, real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR). Because of inherent differences in sensitivity, specificity, time and cost, each of these techniques pose certain advantages and disadvantages with respect to the specific sample you are quantitating. Our next three blogs will discuss each of these methods against the backdrop of quantitating samples for NGS applications.
Engraving of the human heart by T. Milton, 1814. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Every year, nearly 8 million people die from sudden cardiac death, which is defined as the unexpected death of a seemingly healthy person due to malfunctions in the heart’s electrical system and loss of cardiac function. Although sudden cardiac death (SCD) is usually associated with mature adults, SCD claims thousands of young lives every year. In most cases, the cause of death can be determined by autopsy or toxicological analysis, but up to 30% of these premature deaths have no apparent cause, leaving medical examiners and family members of the young victims to wonder what happened.
In cases where traditional pathological examinations cannot provide insight into causation, medical examiners are increasingly turning to molecular autopsies to determine if there is an underlying genetic factor that contributed to a person’s death.
Isolating and sequencing DNA from ancient samples is a highly specialized field of research that easily captures the imagination. For me it started in the early 90’s when I read about researchers using PCR (a relatively new technique at the time) to amplify, and subsequently sequence, the mitochondrial DNA of an extinct subspecies of zebra using a sample collected from a skin rug found at an estate in England.
From samples a few hundred years old to ones that are thousands of years old, scientists have made good use of technological advances to push back the boundaries of time. In this video from Science, Evolutionary Biologist Beth Shapiro talks about working with ancient DNA, and how new advances such as Next Generation Sequencing have made it possible to gather more information from ancient samples.
Science put together a Special Issue focused entirely on the research surrounding ancient DNA. You can find all the articles in this Special Issue here:
Next-generation sequencing (NGS), also known as high-throughput parallel sequencing, is the all-encompassing term used to describe a number of different modern sequencing technologies. These include Illumina (Solexa) sequencing, Roche 454 sequencing, Ion torrent: Proton / PGM sequencing and SOLiD sequencing to name a few .
With the advent of these technologies sequencing DNA and RNA has become much more facile and affordable in comparison to the previously used Sanger sequencing. For these reasons NGS has been the game-changer in the field of modern genomics and molecular biology.
A common starting point for template preparation for NGS platforms is random fragmentation of target DNA and addition of platform-specific adapter sequences to flanking ends. Protocols typically use sonication to shear input DNA, coupled with several rounds of enzymatic modification to produce a sequencer-ready product .
Accurate quantification of DNA preparations is essential to ensure high-quality reads and efficient generation of data. Too much DNA can lead to issues such as mixed signals, un-resolvable data and lower number of single reads. Too little DNA, on the other hand, might result in insufficient sequencing coverage, reduced read depth or empty runs, all of which would incur higher costs. The quality of DNA can also vary depending on the source or extraction method applied and further reinforces the need for appropriate management of the input material. Continue reading →
Formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded (FFPE) tissue samples are extremely common sample types. In this form, tissue is easy to store for extremely long periods of time and useful for immunohistochemical studies. Additionally FFPE samples are fairly inexpensive to produce. However the formalin fixation procedure, which was developed long before the advent of molecular biology, results in chemical crosslinking of nucleic acid and protein molecules inside the cells. This crosslinking presents a challenge for isolating intact, high-quality nucleic acid DNA; so getting at the wealth of molecular information within an FFPE sample can be difficult.