Real-time PCR has been widely used to evaluate gene abundance in natural microbial habitats. However, PCR-inhibitory substances often reduce the efficiency of PCR, leading to the underestimation of target gene copy numbers. Digital PCR using microfluidics is a new approach that allows absolute quantification of DNA molecules. In this study, digital PCR was applied to environmental samples, and the effect of PCR inhibitors on DNA quantification was tested. In the control experiment using λ DNA and humic acids, underestimation of λ DNA at 1/4400 of the theoretical value was observed with 6.58 ng μL(-1) humic acids. In contrast, digital PCR provided accurate quantification data with a concentration of humic acids up to 9.34 ng μL(-1). The inhibitory effect of paddy field soil extract on quantification of the archaeal 16S rRNA gene was also tested. By diluting the DNA extract, quantified copy numbers from real-time PCR and digital PCR became similar, indicating that dilution was a useful way to remedy PCR inhibition. The dilution strategy was, however, not applicable to all natural environmental samples. For example, when marine subsurface sediment samples were tested the copy number of archaeal 16S rRNA genes was 1.04×10(3) copies/g-sediment by digital PCR, whereas real-time PCR only resulted in 4.64×10(2) copies/g-sediment, which was most likely due to an inhibitory effect. The data from this study demonstrated that inhibitory substances had little effect on DNA quantification using microfluidics and digital PCR, and showed the great advantages of digital PCR in accurate quantifications of DNA extracted from various microbial habitats.
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