Advancing brain barriers RNA sequencing – guidelines from experimental design to publication

RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq) in its varied forms has become an indispensable tool for analyzing differential gene expression and thus characterization of specific tissues. Aiming to understand the brain barriers genetic signature, RNA seq has also been introduced in brain barriers research. This has led to availability of both, bulk and single-cell RNA-Seq datasets over the last few years. If appropriately performed, the RNA-Seq studies provide powerful datasets that allow for significant deepening of knowledge on the molecular mechanisms that establish the brain barriers. However, RNA-Seq studies comprise complex workflows that require to consider many options and variables before, during and after the proper sequencing process.

Researchers at the University of Bern build on the interdisciplinary experience of the European PhD Training Network BtRAIN ( where bioinformaticians and brain barriers researchers collaborated to analyze and establish RNA-Seq datasets on vertebrate brain barriers. The obstacles BtRAIN has identified in this process have been integrated into the present manuscript. It provides guidelines along the entire workflow of brain barriers RNA-Seq studies starting from the overall experimental design to interpretation of results. Focusing on the vertebrate endothelial blood–brain barrier (BBB) and epithelial blood-cerebrospinal-fluid barrier (BCSFB) of the choroid plexus, the authors provide a step-by-step description of the workflow, highlighting the decisions to be made at each step of the workflow and explaining the strengths and weaknesses of individual choices made. Finally, they propose recommendations for accurate data interpretation and on the information to be included into a publication to ensure appropriate accessibility of the data and reproducibility of the observations by the scientific community.

Overview of the main steps for RNA-Seq data analysis


Raw data goes through quality control steps and, if necessary, pre-processing steps are implemented. Next step is the alignment, most commonly in brain barriers studies being through mapping to reference. One more round of quality control is recommended based on the metrics of the alignment. After sorting, the files can be indexed and visualized in a genome browser. Counting can be attributed at different levels (gene, exon or transcript) and there are multiple algorithms for normalization, both in cases of inter-sample and intra-sample normalization. Finally, after the differential expression analysis, further information can be obtained with steps like gene ontology analysis, gene set enrichment analysis or pathway analysis

Next generation transcriptomic profiling of the brain barriers provides a novel resource for understanding the development, function and pathology of these barrier cells, which is essential for understanding CNS homeostasis and disease. Continuous advancement and sophistication of RNA-Seq will require interdisciplinary approaches between brain barrier researchers and bioinformaticians as successfully performed in BtRAIN. The present guidelines are built on the BtRAIN interdisciplinary experience and aim to facilitate collaboration of brain barriers researchers with bioinformaticians to advance RNA-Seq study design in the brain barriers community.

Francisco DMF, Marchetti L, Rodríguez-Lorenzo S, et al. (2020) Advancing brain barriers RNA sequencing: guidelines from experimental design to publication. Fluids Barriers CNS. 17(1):51. [article]

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