Background: Real-time reverse transcription PCR (RT-PCR) has greatly improved the ease and sensitivity of quantitative gene expression studies. However, accurate measurement of gene expression with this method relies on the choice of a valid reference for data normalization. Studies rarely verify that gene expression levels for reference genes are adequately consistent among the samples used, nor compare alternative genes to assess which are most reliable for the experimental conditions analyzed.
Results: Using real-time RT-PCR to study the expression of 10 poplar (genus Populus) housekeeping genes, we demonstrate a simple method for determining the degree of stability of gene expression over a set of experimental conditions. Based on a traditional method for analyzing the stability of varieties in plant breeding, it defines measures of gene expression stability from analysis of variance (ANOVA) and linear regression. We found that the potential internal control genes differed widely in their expression stability over the different tissues, developmental stages and environmental conditions studied.
Conclusion: Our results support that quantitative comparisons of candidate reference genes are an important part of real-time RT-PCR studies that seek to precisely evaluate variation in gene expression. The method we demonstrated facilitates statistical and graphical evaluation of gene expression stability. Selection of the best reference gene for a given set of experimental conditions should enable detection of biologically significant changes in gene expression that are too small to be revealed by less precise methods, or when highly variable reference genes are unknowingly used in real-time RT-PCR experiments.