RT-qPCR and qPCR Assays—Detecting Viruses and Beyond

We have all been hearing a lot about RT-PCR, rRT-PCR and RT-qPCR lately, and for good reason. Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (rRT-PCR) is the technique used in by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to test for COVID-19. Real-time RT-PCR, or quantitative RT-PCR (RT-qPCR)*, is a specialized PCR technique that visualizes amplification of the target sequesnce as it happens (in real time) and allows you to measure the amount of starting target material in your reaction. You can read more about the basics of this technique, and watch a webinar here. For more about RT-PCR for COVID-19 testing, read this blog.

Both qPCR and RT-qPCR are powerful tools for scientist to have at their disposal. These fundamental techniques are used to study biological process in a wide range of areas. Over the decades, Promega has supported researchers with RT-qPCR and qPCR reagents and systems to study everything from from diseases like COVID-19 and cancer to viruses in elephants and the circadian rhythm of krill.  

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What We Know About the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2

David Goodsell image of SARS-2-CoV
Image by David Goodsell

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is a new virus that emerged in China in late 2019 and quickly jumped into scientific and mainstream news. When facing a potential pandemic, it can be difficult to share information without inducing panic. There’s no doubt that SARS-CoV-2 presents a significant threat to public health, but as with all viruses in their emerging stages, we often find ourselves with more questions than answers. However, through the work of the World Health Organization (WHO), government officials and hardworking scientists worldwide, we can begin to understand some of the details about SARS-CoV-2.

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Researching the Researcher: Abbeah Navasca, 2019 Real-Time PCR Grant Winner

The three winners of the 2019 Real-Time PCR Grants have been hard at work in the six months since receiving their grants. Each winner was eligible to receive up to $10,000 in free PCR reagents as well as the opportunity to collaborate with our knowledgeable technical service and training teams.

Abbeah Navasca is a plant pathology researcher with the Tagum Agricultural Development Company, Inc. (TADECO*, Philippines). She is developing treatments for viral infections that affect one of Philippines’ largest and most valuable agricultural exports: bananas. As a result of the qPCR grant, she and two of her colleagues were able to participate in sample preparation and analysis workshops with Promega Technical Services experts in Singapore. During her visit, the team worked through strategies for plant sample preparation and amplified those samples with the GoTaq® 1-Step RT-qPCR System. We had a chance to ask her more before she headed back to her lab.

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Investigation of Remdesivir as a Possible Treatment for SARS-2-CoV (2019-nCoV)

Remdesivir (RDV or GS-5734) was used in the treatment of the first case of the SARS-CoV-2 (formerly 2019-nCoV ) in the United States (1). RDV is not an approved drug in any country but has been requested by a number of agencies worldwide to help combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus (2). RDV is an adenine nucleotide monophosphate analog demonstrated to inhibit Ebola virus replication (3). RDV is bioactivated to the triphosphate form within cells and acts as an alternative substrate for the replication-necessary RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp). Incorporation of the analog results in early termination of the primer extension product resulting in the inhibition.

 Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. In this view, the protein particles E, S, M, and HE, also located on the outer surface of the particle, have all been labeled as well. A novel coronavirus virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019.
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Photo Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM CDC

Why all the interest in RDV as a treatment for SARS-CoV-2 ? Much of the interest in RDV is due to a series of studies performed by collaborating groups at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (Ralph S. Baric’s lab) and Vanderbilit University Medical Center (Mark R. Denison’s lab) in collaboration with Gilead Sciences. 

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Researching the Researchers: Alberto Biscontin

2019 Real-Time PCR Grant

The three 2019 Real-Time PCR Grant Winners have been hard at work in the six months since winning their grants. Each winner was eligible to receive up to $10,000 in free PCR reagents as well as the opportunity to collaborate with our knowledgeable technical service and training teams.

One of the 2019 winners, Alberto Biscontin (University of Padova, Italy), performs research in the fields of Neurogenetics and Chronobiology. He is looking to shed greater light on the circadian rhythms of the Antarctic krill. Alberto published his most recent analysis in Nature and GoTaq® qPCR Master Mix helped him validate expression of genes for his study.

His qPCR data showed support for internal mechanisms that not only support daily living but also clarified the overwintering process of the krill. Now that Alberto has sized up some zooplankton, we asked him to share a little more about himself and his research:

Q: How long have you been a researcher?
A: I have been a researcher since 2012.

Q: How did you decide to research Antarctic krill?
A: In 2013, I had the opportunity to join the international Antarctic research program PolarTime. [It] brought together eight research groups with different scientific expertise to study seasonal and daily rhythms in the Antarctic krill Euphausia superba.

Q: When you are not busy at the bench, what do you like to do?
A: Traveling. I love strolling through open-air markets.

Q: Are there any tips or tricks you have learned that make your job easier?
A: You can easily switch from a classic RT-PCR protocol to a cheaper and faster One-step protocol using the same primers and temperatures.

Q: What comes next?
A: I would like to characterize the clock machinery of other polar organisms to understand whether high latitude clocks have developed similar strategies to cope with [the] polar environment. Moreover, a better understanding of marine circadian clocks could help to shed light on the evolution of the animal circadian machinery.

You can find Alberto’s most recent publication in Nature Scientific Reports. The 2020 Real-Time PCR Grant will be coming soon. For more information on the 2019 winners and information on the 2020 Grant, visit the Real-Time Grant web page. Be sure to follow us on social media for the most up-to-date information regarding the 2020 Grant, including application deadlines and winner notifications!

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Nucleic Acid from FFPE Samples: Effects of Pre-Analytical Factors on Downstream Success

Part one of three

Peer-reviewed publications containing data dervived from analysis of nucleic acids isolated from FFPE samples have increased dramatically since 2006.

Formalin Fixed Paraffin Embedded samples (FFPE) have been a mainstay of the pathology lab for over 100 years. Initially FFPE blocks were sectioned, stained with simple dyes and used for studying morphology, but now a variety of biomolecules can be analyzed in these samples. Over the past 10 years we have discovered that there is a treasure trove of genomics data waiting to be unearthed in FFPE tissue. While viral RNAs and miRNA were some of the first molecules found to be present and accessible for analysis starting in the 1990s, improvements to DNA and RNA extraction methods have demonstrated that PCR, qPCR, SNP genotyping, Exome and WGS are possible. This has resulted scientific publications of DNA and RNA data generated from FFPE samples starting in 2006, and today we see immense amounts of data generated from FFPE—with nearly 2000 citations in 2018 reporting sequencing of FFPE samples.

Depending on the type of project, prospective or retrospective, the genomics scientist has an opportunity to affect the probability of success by better understanding the fixation process. The challenge with FFPE is the host of variables that have the potential to negatively affect downstream assays.

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qPCR: The Very Basics

Real-Time (or quantitative, qPCR) monitors PCR amplification as it happens and allows you to measure starting material in your reaction.
Real-Time (or quantitative, qPCR) monitors PCR amplification as it happens and allows you to measure starting material in your reaction. Data are presented graphically rather than as bands on a gel.

For those of us well versed in traditional, end-point PCR, wrapping our minds and methods around real-time or quantitative (qPCR) can be challenging. Here at Promega Connections, we are beginning a series of blogs designed to explain how qPCR works, things to consider when setting up and performing qPCR experiments, and what to look for in your results.

First, to get our bearings, let’s contrast traditional end-point PCR with qPCR.

End-Point PCR qPCR
Visualizes by agarose gel the amplified product AFTER it is produced (the end-point) Visualizes amplification as it happens (in real time) via a detection instrument
Does not precisely measure the starting DNA or RNA Measures how many copies of DNA or RNA you started with (quantitative = qPCR)
Less expensive; no special instruments required More expensive; requires special instrumentation
Basic molecular biology technique Requires slightly more technical prowess

Quantitative PCR (qPCR) can be used to answer the same experimental questions as traditional end-point PCR: Detecting polymorphisms in DNA, amplifying low-abundance sequences for cloning or analysis, pathogen detection and others. However, the ability to observe amplification in real time and detect the number of copies in the starting material can quantitate gene expression, measure DNA damage, and quantitate viral load in a sample and other applications.

Anytime that you are preforming a reaction where something is copied over and over in an exponential fashion, contaminants are just as likely to be copied as the desired input. Quantitative PCR is subject to the same contamination concerns as end-point PCR, but those concerns are magnified because the technique is so sensitive. Avoiding contamination is paramount for generating qPCR results that you can trust.

  1. Use aerosol-resistant pipette tips, and have designated pipettors and tips for pre- and post-amplification steps.
  2. Wear gloves and change them frequently.
  3. Have designated areas for pre- and post-amplification work.
  4. Use reaction “master mixes” to minimize variability. A master mix is a ready-to-use mixture of your reaction components (excluding primers and sample) that you create for multiple reactions. Because you are pipetting larger volumes to make the reaction master mix, and all of your reactions are getting their components from the same master mix, you are reducing variability from reaction to reaction.
  5. Dispense your primers into aliquots to minimize freeze-thaw cycles and the opportunity to introduce contaminants into a primer stock.

These are very basic tips that are common to both end-point and qPCR, but if you get these right, you are off to a good start no matter what your experimental goals are.

If you are looking for more information regarding qPCR, watch this supplementary video below.

Pack a Little Science into Your Summer with Advanced Courses from BTCI

This new cGMP facility was built to have the least effect on the natural environment as possible--surrounded by rain gardens and native plantings, using grey water for flushing toilets--sustainable growth was the goal.
Summer on the Prairie at Promega–Study science surrounded by birds, bees, flowers and amazing prairie.

Summer, a much-looked forward to season. We typically pack in the activities and make the most of the daylight. We work hard and we play hard.  This summer will be no exception, and at the BTC Institute, we are already getting set to host as many students as we can. We will see middle and high schoolers, K-12 teachers, college students, graduate students, college and university faculty and staff, and professionals in the biotech community under our roof at some point. You may want to join us too!

Our programs for advanced learners, geared toward the graduate student or biotech professional, offer much more than just a rigorous immersion in molecular biology theory and practice. Held at the BTC Institute at Promega Headquarters, they are taught by highly knowledgeable scientists, coming from both industry and academia. These instructors offer a wealth of information and share their expertise as well as life experiences with students. Informal discussions about career trajectories and access to industry are important added benefits to attending these off-campus workshops. Continue reading “Pack a Little Science into Your Summer with Advanced Courses from BTCI”

Top 10 Tips to Improve Your qPCR or RT-qPCR Assays

headache

Scientists have had a love-hate relationship with PCR amplification for decades. Real-time or quantitative PCR (qPCR) can be an amazingly powerful tool, but just like traditional PCR, it can be quite frustrating. There are several parameters that can influence the success of your PCR assay. We’ve highlighted ten things to consider when trying to improve your qPCR results.

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Do you want to build a snowman? Developing and optimizing a qPCR assay to detect ice-nucleating activity

Snowflakes---MA-400x600Over the last few months we have published several blogs about qPCR—from basic pointers on avoiding contamination in these sensitive reactions to a collection of tips for successful qPCR. Today we look in depth at a paper that describes the design and and optimization of a qPCR assay, and in keeping with the season of winter in the Northern hemisphere, it is only fitting that the assay tests for the abundance and identity of ice-nucleating bacteria.

Ice-nucleating bacteria are gram-negative bacteria that occur in the environment and are able to “catalyze” the formation ice crystals at warmer temperatures because of the expression of specific, ice-nucleating proteins on their outer membrane. Ice-nucleating bacteria are found in abundance on crop plants, especially grains, and are estimated to cause one-billion dollars in crop damage from frost in the United States alone.

In addition to their abundance on crop plants, ice-nucleating bacteria are also found on natural vegetation and have been isolated from soil, snow, hail, cloud water, in the air above crops under dry conditions and during rain fall. They have even been isolated from soil, seedlings and snow in remote locations in Antarctica. For the bacteria, ice nucleation may be a method to promote dissemination through rain and snow.

Although ice-nucleating bacteria have been isolated from clouds, ice and rain, little is known about their true contribution to precipitation or other events such as glaciation. Are such bacteria the only source of warm-temperature (above temperatures at which ice crystals form without a catalyst) ice nucleation? Can they trigger precipitation directly? What are the factors that trigger their release from vegetation into the atmosphere? Can we determine their abundance and variety in the environment? Continue reading “Do you want to build a snowman? Developing and optimizing a qPCR assay to detect ice-nucleating activity”