The effect of formaldehyde fixation on RNA: optimization of formaldehyde adduct removal

J Mol Diagn. 2011 May;13(3):282-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jmoldx.2011.01.010.


Formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissues generally provide low yields of extractable RNA that exhibit both covalent modification of nucleic acid bases and strand cleavage. This frustrates efforts to perform retrospective analyses of gene expression using archival tissue specimens. A variety of conditions have been reported to demodify formaldehyde-fixed RNA in different model systems. We studied the reversal of formaldehyde fixation of RNA using a 50 base RNA oligonucleotide and total cellular RNA. Formaldehyde-adducted, native, and hydrolyzed RNA species were identified by their bioanalyzer electrophoretic migration patterns and RT-quantitative PCR. Demodification conditions included temperature, time, buffer, and pH. The reversal of formaldehyde-fixed RNA to native species without apparent RNA hydrolysis was most successfully performed in dilute Tris, phosphate, or similar buffers (pH 8) at 70°C for 30 minutes. Amines were not required for efficient formaldehyde demodification. Formaldehyde-fixed RNA was more labile than native RNA to treatment with heat and buffer, suggesting that antigen retrieval methods for proteins may impede RNA hybridization or RNA extraction. Taken together, the data indicate that reliable conditions may be used to remove formaldehyde adducts from RNA to improve the quality of RNA available for molecular studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Buffers
  • Fixatives / pharmacology*
  • Formaldehyde / chemistry*
  • Formaldehyde / pharmacology*
  • HeLa Cells
  • Histological Techniques
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • RNA / drug effects*
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors
  • Tissue Fixation*


  • Buffers
  • Fixatives
  • Formaldehyde
  • RNA