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Quantitative Assessment of the Sensitivity of Various Commercial Reverse Transcriptases Based on Armored HIV RNA

Here we report a systematic comparison of 11 commercially available reverse transciptases for cDNA synthesis. Our analysis reveals significant variation in the sesntivity of these enzymes with Accuscript and Superscript III ranking as the most sensitive and consistent between replicates.

Nov 30, 2010

Authors: J. Okello, L. Rodriguez, D. Poinar, K. Bos, A. Okwi, G. Bimenya, N. Sewankambo, K. Henry, M. Kuch, H. Poinar

PLoS One, November 2010. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0013931


The in-vitro reverse transcription of RNA to its complementary DNA, catalyzed by the enzyme reverse transcriptase, is the most fundamental step in the quantitative RNA detection in genomic studies. As such, this step should be as analytically sensitive, efficient and reproducible as possible, especially when dealing with degraded or low copy RNA samples. While there are many reverse transcriptases in the market, all claiming to be highly sensitive, there is need for a systematic independent comparison of their applicability in quantification of rare RNA transcripts or low copy RNA, such as those obtained from archival tissues.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We performed RT-qPCR to assess the sensitivity and reproducibility of 11 commercially available reverse transcriptases in cDNA synthesis from low copy number RNA levels. As target RNA, we used a serially known number of Armored HIV RNA molecules, and observed that 9 enzymes we tested were consistently sensitive to ~1,000 copies, seven of which were sensitive to ~100 copies, while only 5 were sensitive to ~10 RNA template copies across all replicates tested. Despite their demonstrated sensitivity, these five best performing enzymes (Accuscript, HIV-RT, M-MLV, Superscript III and Thermoscript) showed considerable variation in their reproducibility as well as their overall amplification efficiency. Accuscript and Superscript III were the most sensitive and consistent within runs, with Accuscript and Superscript II ranking as the most reproducible enzymes between assays.


We therefore recommend the use of Accuscript or Superscript III when dealing with low copy number RNA levels, and suggest purification of the RT reactions prior to downstream applications (eg. qPCR) to augment detection. Although the results presented in this study were based on a viral RNA surrogate, and applied to nucleic acid lysates derived from archival formalin-fixed paraffin embedded tissue, their relative performance on RNA obtained from other tissue types may vary, and needs future evaluation.

 Link to article