Evaluation of putative reference genes for gene expression normalization in soybean by quantitative real-time RT-PCR
© Hu et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2009
Received: 13 May 2009
Accepted: 28 September 2009
Published: 28 September 2009
Real-time quantitative reverse transcription PCR (RT-qPCR) data needs to be normalized for its proper interpretation. Housekeeping genes are routinely employed for this purpose, but their expression level cannot be assumed to remain constant under all possible experimental conditions. Thus, a systematic validation of reference genes is required to ensure proper normalization. For soybean, only a small number of validated reference genes are available to date.
A systematic comparison of 14 potential reference genes for soybean is presented. These included seven commonly used (ACT2, ACT11, TUB4, TUA5, CYP, UBQ10, EF1b) and seven new candidates (SKIP16, MTP, PEPKR1, HDC, TIP41, UKN1, UKN2). Expression stability was examined by RT-qPCR across 116 biological samples, representing tissues at various developmental stages, varied photoperiodic treatments, and a range of soybean cultivars. Expression of all 14 genes was variable to some extent, but that of SKIP16, UKN1 and UKN2 was overall the most stable. A combination of ACT11, UKN1 and UKN2 would be appropriate as a reference panel for normalizing gene expression data among different tissues, whereas the combination SKIP16, UKN1 and MTP was most suitable for developmental stages. ACT11, TUA5 and TIP41 were the most stably expressed when the photoperiod was altered, and TIP41, UKN1 and UKN2 when the light quality was changed. For six different cultivars in long day (LD) and short day (SD), their expression stability did not vary significantly with ACT11, UKN2 and TUB4 being the most stable genes. The relative gene expression level of GmFTL3, an ortholog of Arabidopsis FT (FLOWERING LOCUS T) was detected to validate the reference genes selected in this study.
None of the candidate reference genes was uniformly expressed across all experimental conditions, and the most suitable reference genes are conditional-, tissue-specific-, developmental-, and cultivar-dependent. Most of the new reference genes performed better than the conventional housekeeping genes. These results should guide the selection of reference genes for gene expression studies in soybean.
Gene expression analysis plays an important role in furthering our understanding of the signalling and metabolic pathways which underlie developmental and cellular processes. Real-time quantitative reverse transcription PCR (RT-qPCR) represents a particularly suitable technology platform for this purpose, thanks to its sensitivity, specificity, dynamic range and high throughput capacity [1–4]. To avoid experimental errors arising from variation in the quantity and integrity of the RNA template, as well as in the efficiency of the RT reaction used to synthesize cDNA, a normalization step is an essential pre-requisite. The most common way to achieve normalization is to include one, or a small number of reference genes, whose expression is assumed to be constitutive [5–7]. Such genes are expressed at a constant level in all tissues independent of the growing environment [1, 5–8]. Commonly used reference genes include ribosomal RNA (18SrRNA) and a number of housekeeping genes, such as those encoding actin (ACT), tubulin (TUB), glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH), polyubiquitin (UBQ) and elongation factor 1-α (EF1α) [1, 6, 9, 10]. Typically, these genes have been simply assumed to be constitutively expressed, as they are involved in basic and ubiquitous cellular processes [1, 5, 9, 11]. However, the evidence is that transcript levels of housekeeping genes can vary considerably in response to changes in experimental conditions and/or tissue types, so that none of the commonly exploited genes can be viewed as a universal reference. Instead, the onus is on the experimenter to select a panel of genes which is appropriate for the specific set of chosen experimental conditions and tissue types [7, 8, 12–14]. In many cases, a single reference gene is inadequate, and any such reliance is likely to produce erroneous conclusions vis-à-vis expression patterns [15–18].
The importance of expression stability in the choice of reference genes is high enough to have prompted the development of software packages, such as geNorm  and NormFinder , to identify them [17, 21]. A number of reference gene validation attempts have been reported [22–29], and in plants specifically, these have covered both model and crop species: Arabidopsis thaliana [9, 30], rice [31, 32], Brachypodium sp. , wheat , barley , soybean [36, 37], tomato , potato , sugarcane , grape  and poplar [15, 41]. The A. thaliana ATH1 array has been used to identify a set of reference genes superior to the conventionally applied housekeeping genes , and the wider relevance of this set has been demonstrated in Brachypodium sp. , tomato , grape  and poplar .
Soybean is the leading legume crop, and has been used as a model plant in the context of the flowering response to photoperiod. Many of these studies have used TUB and/or ACT as a reference gene (Additional file 1). A literature search based on the keywords "soybean" and "gene expression" produced 54 hits in PubMed (publication period 2001 to 2009). In 23 of these studies (43%), TUB was the reference gene, in 15 of them (28%) ACT, and in six (11%) 18SrRNA. All of the studies surveyed used one single reference gene and no preliminary validations were performed (Additional file 1). To date, only a limited number of statistically validated reference genes have been identified in soybean. A comparison of the performance of ten conventional housekeeping genes across 21 soybean samples allowed the identification of a panel of genes suitable for gene expression normalization . However, the limited number of samples tested meant that a full representation of developmental stages and tissues/organs could not be achieved; instead, a set of new reference genes, chosen to exhibit constancy of expression over a range of experimental conditions, was mined from multiple soybean microarray datasets . In the present report, we compare the performance of seven commonly used housekeeping genes and seven of these new reference genes across a large set of biological samples representing various developmental stages, tissues, photoperiod treatments and cultivars of soybean. The recently released soybean whole genome sequence  has facilitated genome-wide mining for reference genes in soybean. Based on sequence homology, soybean orthologs of the best three A. thaliana reference genes have been identified. A further four genes have been selected, which have shown stable expression on a micro-array platform . Our data indicate that many of these newer reference genes indeed have greater expression stability than the conventionally used housekeeping genes. As a result, the use of combinations of these reference genes should provide a more reliable means of normalizing gene expression.
Transcription profiling of soybean reference genes
Reference genes used for gene expression normalization in soybean.
NCBI Accession No.
Arabidopsis ortholog locus
Arabidopsis locus description
Cytoskeletal structural protein
Cytoskeletal structural protein
Elongation factor 1β
Structural constituent of cytoskeleton
Structural constituent of cytoskeleton
Protein binding, protein modification
Unwinding of the DNA double-helix
SKP1/Ask-Interacting Protein 16
Metalloprotease, Insulin degrading enzyme
Phosphoenolpyruvate Carboxylase-Related Kinase 1
TIP41-like family protein
TOR (Target of Rapamycin) signalling element
PCR efficiency analyses
Reference gene primer sequences and amplicon characteristics.
Forward primer sequence [5'-3']
Reverse primer sequence [5'-3']
Positions in cDNA
Amplicon length (bp)
PCR efficiency (%)
Regression coefficient (R2)
Gene expression stability analyses
To determine the optimal number of genes required for normalization, geNorm was used to calculate the pairwise variation (Vn/Vn+1) between sequential normalization factors (NF) (NFn and NFn+1) . As reported by Vandesompele et al (2002), a threshold value of 0.15 was adopted . In the SD/LD comparison, three genes was sufficient for normalization, since the V3/4 value was <<0.15 (Figure 3B). Differences in the expression stability of the candidate reference genes were less marked in the RL and BL photoperiodic treatment series, than in the other series (Figure 3). The V2/3 value for the RL/BL comparison was 0.091, so that TIP41 together with UKN2 would be sufficient for normalization purposes. Among the cultivars, the pair ACT11 and UKN2 produced a V2/3 value of 0.073. However, for the comparisons based on developmental stage and tissue type, four genes were necessary, since the V3/4 values lay above the threshold. When all the experimental samples were considered together, the V2/3 value was 0.196 and the V3/4 was 0.137, suggesting that the addition of a fourth gene did not improve the quality of the normalization (Figure 3B). Overall, the combination SKIP16, UKN1 and UKN2 was appropriate for all sets of samples.
Expression stability of the reference genes, as calculated by NormFinder.
Reference gene validation
Reference genes are routinely used as a means of quantifying gene expression. The ideal reference genes should be expressed at a constant level throughout the plant and not be influenced by exogenous treatment [1, 5]. Housekeeping genes, such as those involved in basic cellular processes (EF1α, UBQ and CYP) or cell structure maintenance (ACT, TUB), have been extensively used, but increasingly it has become apparent that their expression level is not as independent of experimental conditions as had been expected [6–8, 13, 14, 18, 48]. This implies a need to test in advance the expression stability of any proposed reference gene(s), a procedure which is often not followed in the literature. Normalization based on several reference genes has begun to become the standard, supported by the development of software such as geNorm and Normfinder [17, 21]. However, the prior validation of reference genes remains uncommon in plant research, although it is the norm in human and animal research [22–25, 32, 49–54].
Soybean has been used as a model plant for the study of photoperiod-induced floral induction , but the molecular mechanism underlying this induction remains poorly understood. In soybean, ACT, TUB and UBQ are the most frequently used reference genes (Additional file 1), but there is increasing evidence that their expression is not particularly stable under certain conditions. More recently, some alternative reference genes have emerged [36, 37]. Although four of these (SKIP16, MTP, PEPKR1 and UKN2) have been shown by RT-qPCR to be stably expressed under certain limited experimental conditions, no detailed validation has to date been carried out to test their suitability in experiments involving photoperiodic treatments.
In the present study, we used more subdivided samples to make the data more representative (Additional file 5). To our knowledge, this is the first systematic study of the expression stability of reference genes across such a large number of samples under varied light regimes (SD/LD/DD/LL, RL and BL) in soybean. The 14 reference genes in general out-performed the conventional housekeeping genes, and the poor performance of commonly used genes such as ACT2/7 and TUB4 was of particular note (Figure 3). SKIP16, UKN1 and UKN2 were overall the most stable and were good candidates for the normalization of general gene expression. But different sets of samples had their own best reference genes (Figure 3). For example, ACT11 is one of best reference genes for both different tissue and photoperiod samples, whereas TIP41 did better than ACT11 when studying samples harvesting from different quality light (blue and red light) and SKIP16 was the best reference for developmental material.
The weakness of ACT2 in soybean, rice, potato and sugarcane has been noted previously [32, 37, 39, 40], while ACT2/7 was seen to be rather variable in A. thaliana . However, ACT2/7 was judged to be the most stable of a set of ten conventional housekeeping genes across 21 soybean samples, covering a range of developmental stages . Similarly, TUB performed poorly as a reference gene in grape, potato and soybean [16, 36, 39]. UBQ10, which ranked poorly in the present experiments, was previously deemed unsatisfactory as a reference in soybean  and in grape , but enjoyed very stable expression in A. thaliana and Brachypodium sp. [9, 33]. EF1b was among the most stable genes both in this study and in a previous study of soybean , while in both potato and rice, EF1α was very stably expressed under conditions of biotic and abiotic stress . The same gene was also identified as being highly stable in its expression across tissues of rice , but was unstable across tissues and organs of tomato at various developmental stages . TUA5 was identified as being highly stable across development in soybean , while in poplar, TUA was very stably expressed across different tissues . Here, TUA5 expression was hardly affected by changes in photoperiod. Globally, the best-performing genes were SKIP16, UKN1, UKN2 and TIP41, while the worst were PEPKR1 and HDC. TIP41 and UKN2 have been noted as showing stable expression across tissues and development in both tomato  and aspen . However, TIP41 performed poorly during grape berry development , and in the roots and leaves of A. thaliana plants suffering cadmium or copper stress . In aspen cambial cells, UKN2 expression was too unstable for the gene to be used for normalization . Thus, overall, while certain reference genes are stably expressed in one plant species, they may not be well suited for use in others. As a consequence, prior validation of reference genes needs to be carried out under the specific experimental conditions to be applied in gene expression studies.
We report the application of various mathematical and statistical models to minimize bias in the quantification of gene expression in soybean. The first was a conventional statistical test to calculate the coefficient of variance (CV) of Cq values, which allowed an assessment of an individual gene's expression stability. But, due to its low sensitivity and reliability, this method can not clearly define the most stably expressed reference genes. The second exploited geNorm software , which showed that the stability of the various candidate reference genes varied considerably across the sets of samples (Figure 1). The third used the alternative program, NormFinder, which ranks the reference genes according to their expression stability . The ranking of genes as revealed by NormFinder was mostly identical to that generated by geNorm (Table 3). Except for TUB4, all the candidate reference genes were represented in the Genevestigator database , and most of the expression patterns revealed by Genevestigator microarray data were consistent with the outputs of geNorm and NormFinder in the present data set (Additional file 6 and 7).
It has been argued that co-regulation of genes may confound geNorm analyses, because of the software's tendency to select the genes with a similar expression profile . Among the set of genes tested, two pairs (TUA5/TUB4 and ACT2/7/ACT11) belong to a particular gene family, and thus may be prone to co-regulation. But the possibility that ACT and TUA may be co-regulated is unlikely in this study (Figure 3), given that ACT11 and TUA5 were consistently ranked above ACT2/7 and TUB4 except that TUB4 ranked above TUA5 in different cultivars.
The transcript abundance of many genes is, like GmFTL3, never very high, so any variation in their expression pattern is inevitably subtle. In this study, we normalized the expression of GmFTL3 with a total of seven normalization factors using individual or combinations of two, three and four control genes, and got similar patterns even though the levels of the abundance were different. But normalization with the combination of more genes resulted in improved accuracy. It suggests that the number of reference genes needed to be employed is dependent on the considerations of a researcher's purpose. That is, if one just wants to show a rough expression mode of genes, one reference gene may be enough if this reference gene was confirmed as a stable expressed gene. However, if the researcher hopes to compare the expression among different samples or to accurate the expression level, more reference genes (dependent on the geNorm threshold of 0.15) must be taken. This may be partially explained by that the geNorm threshold is not a strict cut-off and that the observed trend of changing pairwise variation values is equally informative [17, 33, 56].
In the present study, we have investigated the expression of 14 candidate reference genes across a large number of soybean samples in an attempt to identify those most suitable for normalizing gene expression. No gene was consistently superior to the others, but most novel genes were better than the conventionally used housekeeping genes in terms of their expression stability. A combination of the three genes SKIP16, UKN1 and UKN2 provided the most robust platform for transcript normalization across experimental conditions in this study.
The soybean cultivar Kennong18 (KN18) was used for most experiments. Plants were grown in a growth chamber under short day conditions (8 h light/16 h dark) at a temperature 25°C - 28°C. Seedling tissues were harvested before the expansion of the unifoliolate leaf. The root, hypocotyl, epicotyl, cotyledon, unifoliolate leaf and shoot apex (including the apical meristem and immature leaves) were sampled when the unifoliolate leaves had become fully expanded (about two weeks after sowing). A further sample of the root, along with the stem, unifoliolate leaves, various trifoliolate and lateral leaves, the petiole and the flowers were harvested when the fourth trifoliolate had become fully expanded (45 days after sowing, flowering onset). Pods and seeds were sampled at seven, 14 and 21 days after flowering, and at maturity. The aerial part of plants was also harvested respectively when the unifoliolate, first, second, third trifoliolate, and fourth trifoliolate were fully expanded (Additional file 5, indicated in yellow and green). To study the effect of altering the photoperiod, seedlings were exposed to either a long day (LD, 18 h light/6 h dark) or a short day (SD, 8 h light/16 h dark) regime. Fully expanded unifoliolate leaves were collected at 4 h intervals over 48 h, then the seedlings were transferred to either constant white light (LD) or constant darkness (SD), and the unifoliolate leaves re-sampled at 4 h intervals over a further 48 h (Additional file 5, indicated in grey). The effect of exposure to either red (RL) or blue (BL) light was monitored in etiolated seedlings subjected to red (Red-LED, 658 nm) or blue (Blue-LED, 436 nm) light in a growth chamber under LD conditions. The unifoliolate leaves were harvested at 4 h intervals over 48 h (Additional file 5, indicated in red and blue). Six further soybean cultivars were included: Heihe 27 (HH27), Zhonghuang 13 (ZH13), Jidou 12 (JD12), Tiefeng 31(TF31), Suinong 14 (SN14) and Fudou 1 (FD1). These seedlings were grown under either SD or LD conditions and the unifoliolate leaves were sampled 30 min before the lights were turned off (Additional file 5, indicated in purple). Totally, the experimental samples comprised 44 at various stages of development, 60 exposed to various photoperiod treatments, and 12 involving six different cultivars (Additional file 5). All samples were immediately frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored at -80°C until required.
Total RNA isolation and cDNA synthesis
Total RNA was extracted using the TRIzol reagent (Invitrogen, CA, USA) according to the manufacturer's instructions. Alternatively, total RNA from the petioles was isolated by the CTAB method . Only RNA preparations having an A260/A280 ratio of 1.8-2.0 and an A260/A230 ratio >2.0 were used for subsequent analysis. RNA integrity was verified by 2% agarose gel electrophoresis followed by SYBR Green staining. Before cDNA synthesis, the RNA was treated with RQ1 RNase-free DNase (Promega, Madison, WI, USA), according to the manufacturer's instructions, and first-strand cDNA synthesis was carried out using 4 μg RNA with the help of the RevertAid first strand cDNA synthesis kit (Fermentas, St. Leon-Roth, Germany) and oligo-dT primers, according to the manufacturer's protocol.
Selection of candidate soybean genes
A set of 14 candidate reference genes was selected. This comprised seven conventionally used housekeeping genes; the soybean orthologs of the A. thaliana reference genes TIP41 (At4G34270), HDC (At1G58050) and UKN2 (At4G33380); and SKIP16 (At1G06110), MTP (At2G41790), PEPKR1 (At1G12580) and UKN1 (At3G13410), which were identified as potential reference genes via a soybean microarray gene expression analysis .
PCR primer design and test of amplification efficiency
Primers were designed using Beacon Designer v7.0 (Premier Biosoft International, Palo Alto, California, USA) with melting temperatures 58-60°C, primer lengths 20-24 bp and amplicon lengths 60-134 bp. Experimental details are given in Table 2. Exon/intron boundaries were determined by aligning each cDNA sequence with its corresponding genomic sequence, downloaded from Phytozome http://www.phytozome.net/cgi-bin/gbrowse/soybean/. Five primer pairs were directed to locate on different exons or directly spanning exon-exon junction of each cDNA (Table 2). For each primer pair, reaction efficiency estimates were derived from a standard curve generated from a serial dilution of pooled cDNA. Mean quantification cycle (Cq) values of each ten-fold dilution were plotted against the logarithm of the cDNA dilution factor. An estimate of PCR efficiency was derived from the expression [10(1/-S)-1] × 100%, where S represents the slope of the linear regression .
Real-time quantitative RT-PCR
RT-qPCR was conducted using an ABI StepOne Detection System (Applied Biosystems, USA), based on SYBR Premix Ex Taq polymerase (TaKaRa, Toyoto, Japan). Each 15 μl reaction comprised 4 μl template, 7.5 μl 2× SYBR Premix, 0.3 μl (200 nM) of each primer and 0.3 μl ROX. The reactions were subjected to an initial denaturation step of 95°C/10s, followed by 40 cycles of 95°C/5s and 60°C/60s. A melting curve analysis was performed at the end of the PCR run over the range 60-95°C, increasing the temperature stepwise by 0.5°C every 10s. Baseline and quantification cycle (Cq) were automatically determined using the StepOne Software v2.0. Zero template controls were included for each primer pair, and each PCR reaction was carried out in triplicate.
Cq values were converted into relative quantities via the delta-Cq method using the sample with the lowest Cq as calibrator and incorporating the calculated amplification efficiencies for each primer pair (Table 2). The stability of reference gene expression was analysed with the geNorm (v3.5) and NormFinder (v0.953) software packages [19, 20]. The former derives a stability measure (M), and via a stepwise exclusion of the least stable gene, creates a stability ranking. It also estimates the number of genes required to calculate a robust normalization factor (NF). NormFinder uses an ANOVA-based model to estimate intra- and inter-group variation, and combines these estimates to provide a direct measure of the variation in expression for each gene. All other statistical analyses were performed with SPSS (v13, SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL).
Microarray data analysis
The stability of the reference gene set was validated using the 3,092 Genevestigator soybean genome microarray dataset, available at http://www.genevestigator.ethz.ch . The Meta-Profile Analysis tool was used to represent each reference gene's expression stability according to its UniGene IDs (see Table 1).
quantitative real-time reverse transcriptase PCR
- GAPDH :
- ACT :
- TUB :
- TUA :
- CYP :
- EF1b :
eukaryotic translation elongation factor-1 β
- UBQ10 :
- SKIP16 :
SKP1/ASK-interacting protein 16
- MTP :
- PEPKR1 :
phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase-related kinase 1
- HDC :
helicase domain containing
- TIP41 :
- UKN1 :
UKN2:genes of unknown function
coefficient of variation
analysis of variance
This work was supported in part by Transgenic program (Nos 2008ZX08009-001, 2008ZX08004-005, 2008ZX08010-004, and 2009ZX08009-133B), the Chinese National Key Basic Research "973" Program (2010CB125906), the Chinese National "863" Program (Nos 2006AA10Z107, 2006AA10A111, and 2007AA10Z119), the Chinese National Science Foundation (30671245), and the Key Technology R&D Program (2007BAD59B02).
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