My very first job in science was in a lab that worked exclusively with RNA, and it was only after I moved on to a different job that I learned just how much different the world of DNA research is from that of RNA. When working with DNA, for example, you rarely if ever have the sample you have labored over reduced to a fuzzy blur at the bottom of a gel because it has been degraded beyond rescue. With RNA, unfortunately, this happens all too frequently. In fact, a labmate of mine once put up a poll on the door to our lab asking if it was better to discover that your RNA sample was degraded on a Monday or a Friday.
The culprits in this scenario are Ribonucleases (RNases). They are everywhere. They are incredibly stable and difficult to inactivate. And, if you work with RNA, they are your enemy. Take heart though, they can be defeated if you follow some pretty simple steps.
I will admit that over the years, I have watched various crime scene investigation shows and read several books by Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell because I was fascinated by forensic science. These same books and shows are a guilty pleasure because as a scientist, I know these portrayals do not accurately reflect how laboratory work is done. Answers are not so cut and dried as an exact estimation of time of death—for example, death was five hours before the body was found in an abandoned warehouse. However, scientists are always looking for ways to improve accuracy in time of death estimates, which are currently based on a few physical clues that are affected by environment and other factors. One approach taken by Sampaio-Silva et al. (1) was to assess the RNA degradation using reverse transcription quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR).