Comparison of RNA isolation methods on RNA-Seq: implications for differential expression and meta-analyses

BMC Genomics. 2020 Mar 20;21(1):249. doi: 10.1186/s12864-020-6673-2.


Background: The increasing number of transcriptomic datasets has allowed for meta-analyses, which can be valuable due to their increased statistical power. However, meta-analyses can be confounded by so-called "batch effects," where technical variation across different batches of RNA-seq experiments can clearly produce spurious signals of differential expression and reduce our power to detect true differences. While batch effects can sometimes be accounted for, albeit with caveats, a better strategy is to understand their sources to better avoid them. In this study, we examined the effects of RNA isolation method as a possible source of batch effects in RNA-seq design.

Results: Based on the different chemistries of "classic" hot phenol extraction of RNA compared to common commercial RNA isolation kits, we hypothesized that specific mRNAs may be preferentially extracted depending upon method, which could masquerade as differential expression in downstream RNA-seq analyses. We tested this hypothesis using the Saccharomyces cerevisiae heat shock response as a well-validated environmental response. Comparing technical replicates that only differed in RNA isolation method, we found over one thousand transcripts that appeared "differentially" expressed when comparing hot phenol extraction with the two kits. Strikingly, transcripts with higher abundance in the phenol-extracted samples were enriched for membrane proteins, suggesting that indeed the chemistry of hot phenol extraction better solubilizes those species of mRNA.

Conclusions: Within a self-contained experimental batch (e.g. control versus treatment), the method of RNA isolation had little effect on the ability to identify differentially expressed transcripts. However, we suggest that researchers performing meta-analyses across different experimental batches strongly consider the RNA isolation methods for each experiment.

Keywords: Batch effects; Meta-analysis; RNA isolation; RNA-seq; Transcriptomics.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Chemical Fractionation / methods*
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Fungal
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Phenol / chemistry
  • RNA, Fungal / antagonists & inhibitors
  • RNA, Fungal / isolation & purification*
  • Research Design
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / genetics*
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA


  • RNA, Fungal
  • Phenol