Small RNA profiling of low biomass samples: identification and removal of contaminants.

Sequencing-based analyses of low-biomass samples are known to be prone to misinterpretation due to the potential presence of contaminating molecules derived from laboratory reagents and environments. DNA contamination has been previously reported, yet contamination with RNA is usually considered to be very unlikely due to its inherent instability. Small RNAs (sRNAs) identified in tissues and bodily fluids, such as blood plasma, have implications for physiology and pathology, and therefore the potential to act as disease biomarkers. Thus, the possibility for RNA contaminants demands careful evaluation.

University of Luxembourg researchers report on the presence of small RNA (sRNA) contaminants in widely used microRNA extraction kits and propose an approach for their depletion. They sequenced sRNAs extracted from human plasma samples and detected important levels of non-human (exogenous) sequences whose source could be traced to the microRNA extraction columns through a careful qPCR-based analysis of several laboratory reagents. Furthermore, they also detected the presence of artefactual sequences related to these contaminants in a range of published datasets, thereby arguing in particular for a re-evaluation of reports suggesting the presence of exogenous RNAs of microbial and dietary origin in blood plasma. To avoid artefacts in future experiments, the researchers devise several protocols for the removal of contaminant RNAs, define minimal amounts of starting material for artefact-free analyses, and confirm the reduction of contaminant levels for identification of bona fide sequences using ‘ultra-clean’ extraction kits.


Workflow of the initial screen for and validation of exogenous sRNA sequences in human plasma samples

This is the first report on the presence of RNA molecules as contaminants in RNA extraction kits. The described protocols should be applied in the future to avoid confounding sRNA studies.

Heintz-Buschart A, Yusuf D, Kaysen A, Etheridge A, Fritz JV, May P, de Beaufort C, Upadhyaya BB, Ghosal A, Galas DJ, Wilmes P. (2018) Small RNA profiling of low biomass samples: identification and removal of contaminants. BMC Biol 16(1):52. [article]

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