Methods for applying accurate digital PCR analysis on low copy DNA samples

PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e58177. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0058177. Epub 2013 Mar 5.


Digital PCR (dPCR) is a highly accurate molecular approach, capable of precise measurements, offering a number of unique opportunities. However, in its current format dPCR can be limited by the amount of sample that can be analysed and consequently additional considerations such as performing multiplex reactions or pre-amplification can be considered. This study investigated the impact of duplexing and pre-amplification on dPCR analysis by using three different assays targeting a model template (a portion of the Arabidopsis thaliana alcohol dehydrogenase gene). We also investigated the impact of different template types (linearised plasmid clone and more complex genomic DNA) on measurement precision using dPCR. We were able to demonstrate that duplex dPCR can provide a more precise measurement than uniplex dPCR, while applying pre-amplification or varying template type can significantly decrease the precision of dPCR. Furthermore, we also demonstrate that the pre-amplification step can introduce measurement bias that is not consistent between experiments for a sample or assay and so could not be compensated for during the analysis of this data set. We also describe a model for estimating the prevalence of molecular dropout and identify this as a source of dPCR imprecision. Our data have demonstrated that the precision afforded by dPCR at low sample concentration can exceed that of the same template post pre-amplification thereby negating the need for this additional step. Our findings also highlight the technical differences between different templates types containing the same sequence that must be considered if plasmid DNA is to be used to assess or control for more complex templates like genomic DNA.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase / genetics
  • Arabidopsis / genetics*
  • DNA, Complementary / genetics
  • DNA, Plant / genetics*
  • Gene Dosage*
  • Genes, Plant
  • Models, Statistical
  • Plasmids / metabolism
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Spectrophotometry, Ultraviolet


  • DNA, Complementary
  • DNA, Plant
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase

Grants and funding

The work described in this manuscript was funded by the UK National Measurement System. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.