Principles of Real-time Quantitative PCR: A Comprehensive Guide

Introduction to Real-time Quantitative PCR

Real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR), alternatively termed quantitative reverse transcription PCR (qRT-PCR), stands as a robust technique renowned for its sensitivity and accuracy in quantifying nucleic acids within biological specimens. Diverging from conventional PCR's capacity solely for qualitative assessments concerning target sequence presence or absence, real-time qPCR permits the meticulous determination of target nucleic acid concentration in a dynamic, real-time fashion throughout the amplification process. Within this comprehensive exposition, we embark on an exploration of the fundamental principles, multifaceted applications, and notable advancements characterizing real-time qPCR, elucidating its pivotal role across diverse realms of biological and medical inquiry.

Two Common Quantitation Methods: A Comparative Analysis

qPCR encompasses two fundamental quantitation methodologies: standard-curve or absolute quantitation, and relative quantitation, also known as the comparative threshold method. These approaches hold pivotal significance in the accurate quantification of target nucleic acids within biological specimens, albeit through distinct methodologies and applications.

Standard-curve or Absolute Quantitation

In the standard-curve method of qPCR, known concentrations of target nucleic acid standards are utilized to construct a calibration curve. This curve correlates the Cycle threshold (Ct) values against the logarithm of the initial target concentration, facilitating the determination of the starting copy number of the target within unknown samples. Through a comparative analysis of Ct values from unknown samples to the standard curve, researchers achieve accurate quantification of the target nucleic acid content.


Absolute Quantitation: The method offers an absolute measure of target nucleic acid concentration within the sample, facilitating precise quantification.

Accuracy: Calibration curves enable precise determination of target copy numbers across a broad dynamic range of concentrations, ensuring accuracy.

Standardization: It permits the standardization of qPCR assays across various experiments and laboratories, thus augmenting reproducibility and comparability of outcomes.


Requirement for Standards: Utilization of purified target nucleic acid standards is imperative, posing challenges when such standards are not readily available for all targets.

Labor Intensity: The process of generating calibration curves and executing standard samples can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, particularly in high-throughput scenarios.

Sensitivity Issues: Sensitivity might diminish at low target concentrations, thereby compromising the accuracy of quantitation in samples with low copy numbers.

Relative Quantitation or Comparative Threshold Method

In contrast, the relative quantitation method entails the normalization of the target nucleic acid quantity in unknown samples to an internal reference gene or calibrator. Typically, the ΔΔCt method is utilized, wherein the disparity in Cycle threshold (Ct) values between the target gene and the reference gene (ΔCt) is computed and contrasted with a control sample (ΔΔCt). This methodology furnishes a relative assessment of target expression or abundance in relation to the reference.


Internal Control: This method incorporates internal reference genes or calibrators to compensate for variations in sample preparation, RNA quality, and PCR efficiency.

Simplicity: It obviates the need for generating standard curves or known standards, thereby streamlining assay setup and diminishing experimental intricacy.

Flexibility: It enables the comparison of gene expression levels across different samples or experimental conditions relative to a control, thereby facilitating comparative analyses.


Relative Measure: The method furnishes relative quantitation rather than absolute quantitation, constraining its efficacy in determining the precise copy numbers of target nucleic acids.

Assumption of Equal PCR Efficiency: It rests upon the assumption of uniform PCR efficiency between the target and reference genes, a premise that may not invariably hold true and could introduce bias.

Normalization Variability: The selection of reference genes and normalization methods can exert an influence on the accuracy and interpretation of relative quantitation results, necessitating meticulous choice and validation.

Both standard-curve and relative quantitation methods constitute invaluable tools in real-time qPCR analysis, each presenting unique merits and constraints. While absolute quantitation furnishes meticulous measurements of target nucleic acid concentrations, relative quantitation proffers simplicity and adaptability for comparative investigations. It behooves researchers to meticulously weigh the experimental imperatives, sample attributes, and intended objectives when electing the most fitting quantitation approach for their inquiries.

Basic Principles of Real-time qPCR

qPCR represents an evolution of traditional PCR methodology, permitting the continuous monitoring of DNA amplification in real-time. Integral components of real-time qPCR encompass template DNA, primers, nucleotides, and a thermostable DNA polymerase. This technique offers manifold advantages over conventional PCR, notably including enhanced precision, sensitivity, and the capacity for target nucleic acid quantification. Through the surveillance of fluorescence emission throughout PCR cycles, real-time qPCR facilitates the construction of amplification curves, from which quantitative data can be derived. Widely employed across diverse realms of biological inquiry, including gene expression profiling, mutation identification, pathogen enumeration, and myriad other applications, real-time qPCR has emerged as an indispensable analytical tool in contemporary molecular biology.

Principles of real-time quantitative PCRSummary of the principles of real-time quantitative PCR. (Claire MM Gachon et al, 2004)

Quantification in Real-time qPCR: Unraveling the Dynamics of Nucleic Acid Amplification

The Ct Value: A Key Metric for Precise Quantification

Quantitative evaluation in real-time quantitative PCR is fundamentally predicated on the threshold cycle (Ct), a critical gauge that designates the prevalence of target nucleic acids within a given sample. The Ct value aligns with the PCR cycle at which the observable fluorescence signal eclipses a threshold predefined by the researcher, signalling the initiation of an exponential amplification phase. The meticulous scrutiny of these Ct values facilitates an accurate quantification of the initial count of the target DNA or RNA molecules embedded in the sample. This methodological approach provides an extensive dynamic range, spanning multiple orders of magnitude, thereby empowering the detection and differentiation of even the most diminutive variations in the abundance of the target sequence.

Amplification Curve Analysis: Insights into PCR Dynamics

The amplification curve derived from real-time qPCR assays furnishes invaluable insights into the intricate dynamics of PCR amplification. Characterized by distinct phases—linear, exponential, and plateau—the amplification curve serves as a graphical depiction of the temporal progression of target amplification kinetics. Within the exponential phase, the fluorescence signal undergoes exponential augmentation with each successive PCR cycle, indicative of vigorous amplification of target nucleic acids. The linear correlation between fluorescence intensity and PCR cycle number affords a foundation for precise quantification predicated on Ct values. Subsequent interrogation of the amplification curve empowers researchers to evaluate reaction efficiency, discern inhibitory elements, and refine assay parameters to attain optimal sensitivity and precision.

Standard Curve Construction: Calibration for Accurate Quantification

In the pursuit of translating Ct values into absolute quantification data, researchers commonly resort to standard curve analysis. This entails the construction of a standard curve by plotting Ct values against known concentrations of reference standards, typically derived from serially diluted nucleic acid templates. Through the extrapolation of Ct values of unknown samples from the standard curve, researchers can ascertain the exact concentration of target nucleic acids present in the original specimen. Standard curve analysis serves to augment the precision and dependability of real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) quantification, thereby facilitating quantitative comparisons across diverse samples and experimental conditions.

Relative Quantification: Comparing Target Abundance Across Samples

The innovative technique of real-time qPCR presents a dual utility: it facilitates not only absolute quantification, but also relative quantification. The inherent value of this dual capacity is that it enables scientists to ascertain a comparative measure of the target nucleic acids' abundance across variegated samples or disparate experimental conditions.

When engaging in the process of relative quantification, the critical threshold (Ct) values of the genes under scrutiny are juxtaposed with those gleaned from either reference genes or internal controls found in the identical samples. This approach of juxtaposing target gene expression with stable reference genes allows for the calibration of gene expression in line with the variations noticed in sample quality, RNA input, and PCR efficiency. As a result, this standardisation provides access to credible relative quantification data.

Particularly in the realm of gene expression research, relative quantification proffers noteworthy benefits. The insight it grants into gene regulatory mechanisms, pathway analysis, and the identification of novel biomarkers makes its utilisation indispensable. Thus, the normative use of relative quantification in real-time qPCR not only enhances the rigour of scientific research, but also provides a roadmap for potential biological breakthroughs.

Emerging Trends: Advanced Quantification Strategies

Augmented by the progress in real-time qPCR applications, cutting-edge methods of quantification have fostered unprecedented mastery of the approach, bolstering its adaptability and meticulousness. In particular, multiplex qPCR enables the contemporaneous procreation and enumeration of several target genes within an individual reaction, fostering efficient, high-throughput analysis while shielding valuable samples from unwarranted consumption.

Equally pivotal is the advent of digital PCR (dPCR). With dPCR, absolute quantification evolves into more than just a mere possibility: it becomes an accessible reality. Contrary to conventional techniques that call for the formulation of standard curves or reference samples, dPCR allows an unmitigated and accurate quantification of nucleic acids. The methodology partitions samples into innumerable individual reactions, thereby facilitating the specific unearthing of scarce targets and advancing an unparalleled measure of accuracy and sensitivity in nucleic acid quantification.

Probes in Real-time qPCR: Enhancing Specificity and Sensitivity

TaqMan Probes: Exquisite Specificity Through Enzymatic Cleavage

TaqMan probes stand as a cornerstone of real-time qPCR assays, esteemed for their exceptional specificity and sensitivity in target detection. Comprising a fluorescent reporter dye at the 5' terminus and a quencher dye at the 3' terminus, these hydrolysis probes harbor a target-specific sequence in between. Throughout PCR amplification, the 5' exonuclease activity of Taq polymerase cleaves the TaqMan probe upon its annealing to the complementary target sequence. This cleavage event prompts the dissociation of the reporter and quencher dyes, eliciting a discernible surge in fluorescence. The real-time surveillance of fluorescence affords precise quantification of target nucleic acids and facilitates discrimination between specific and nonspecific amplification products. Owing to their robust performance and versatility, TaqMan probes have found widespread application in diagnostic assays, pathogen detection, and gene expression analyses.

Molecular Beacons: Dynamic Hybridization for Target Discrimination

Molecular beacons encapsulate a dynamic method for target identification through real-time quantitative PCR, amalgamating target specificity and the versatility of stem-loop architectures. These probes, characterized by their unique hairpin shape, present a stem region constituted by complementary sequences that align to generate a stable duplex, and a loop region, which houses a sequence specific to the target.

Absent a target nucleic acid, the stem-loop formation maintains the inimical relationship between the fluorescent reporter dye and the quencher dye, enabling suppression of fluorescence via Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET). Upon successful alignment with a complementary target sequence, the molecular beacon undergoes a change in conformation, prompting a separation of the reporter and quencher dyes, which consequently permits fluorescence emission.

This dynamic process of hybridization furnishes the ability to distinguish single-base mismatches and promotes the facility for multiplexing by constructing molecular beacons with distinct spectral attributes. The noted potential of molecular beacons has resulted in their adoption across numerous applications such as gene expression profiling, SNP genotyping, and viral detection where exceptional precision in target discrimination is critical.

Scorpion Probes: Intramolecular Hybridization for Amplification Efficiency

Scorpion probes present an intramolecular strategy for real-time qPCR, harnessing stem-loop architectures to augment amplification efficacy and sensitivity. These probes feature a target-specific sequence flanked by stem regions, with a fluorophore reporter dye appended to the 5' terminus and a quencher dye affixed to the 3' terminus. In the absence of target nucleic acids, the stem-loop configuration hampers fluorescence emission by juxtaposing the reporter and quencher dyes closely. During PCR amplification, the scorpion probe anneals to its complementary target sequence, thereby permitting the unraveling of the stem-loop structure and the disjunction of the reporter and quencher dyes. This intramolecular hybridization event engenders a swift and effective amplification signal, thereby facilitating the real-time surveillance of target amplification kinetics. Scorpion probes have found utility in diverse realms such as pathogen identification, gene expression profiling, and molecular diagnostics, where expeditious and sensitive nucleic acid detection underpins precise diagnosis and investigative endeavors.

Dual Hybridization Probes: Tandem Target Binding for Enhanced Specificity

Dual hybridization probes represent a tandem approach to real-time qPCR, capitalizing on the synergy of two complementary probes to heighten both specificity and sensitivity. Comprising two oligonucleotide probes—one bearing a donor fluorophore and the other an acceptor fluorophore—these probes are meticulously crafted to anneal to contiguous segments of the target sequence. Upon engagement with their complementary target sequences, the dual hybridization probes juxtapose the donor and acceptor fluorophores closely, thereby facilitating FRET between the two dyes. This FRET-mediated detection mechanism not only furnishes a robust signal amplification strategy but also enables the discrimination between specific and nonspecific amplification products. Widely adopted in multiplex qPCR assays, single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genotyping, and microbial detection endeavors, dual hybridization probes play a pivotal role in scenarios necessitating precise and reliable target discrimination for diagnostic and investigational purposes.

Applications of Real-time qPCR

Gene Expression Analysis

Real-time qPCR stands as a cornerstone method extensively employed in quantifying gene expression levels. This technique empowers researchers to delve into intricate aspects of gene regulation, unveil elusive biomarkers, and unravel the underlying mechanisms of various diseases. Through the meticulous measurement of messenger RNA (mRNA) abundance across diverse tissue types, cellular contexts, or experimental paradigms, investigators can glean invaluable insights into the intricate tapestry of biological processes and the intricate pathways that underpin pathological conditions.

Quantification of Nucleic Acids

In tandem with its role in gene expression analysis, real-time qPCR finds extensive utility in the precise quantification of nucleic acids—comprising both DNA and RNA—across a spectrum of sample types. This encompasses the quantification of viral load within clinical specimens, the meticulous assessment of copy number variations, and the sensitive detection of minimal residual disease among individuals grappling with cancer.

Clinical Diagnostics

Real-time qPCR has evolved into an indispensable tool within clinical diagnostics, facilitating swift and precise identification of infectious agents, genetic mutations, and pivotal disease biomarkers. Its pivotal role spans the diagnosis of infectious diseases, monitoring of treatment efficacy, and provision of guidance for personalized therapeutic interventions.

Prenatal Screening

The evolution of real-time qPCR technology has paved the way for early prenatal screening, offering a non-invasive means to detect genetic disorders and chromosomal abnormalities. Through the analysis of fetal cells or DNA extracted from maternal circulation, clinicians can now provide expectant parents with comprehensive risk assessments for congenital disorders, enabling informed counseling and proactive management strategies.

For more information on Real-time qPCR applications, refer to "Real-time qPCR Applications".

Future Perspectives

The trajectory of real-time qPCR harbors promising avenues, marked by continuous strides in both technological innovations and diverse applications. Refinements in instrumentation, assay architecture, and detection chemistries are poised to bolster the sensitivity, specificity, and multiplexing prowess of real-time qPCR methodologies. Pioneering entities such as CD Genomics stand at the vanguard of this evolutionary journey, spearheading the creation of next-generation real-time qPCR platforms and assays tailored to meet the demands of varied research domains and practical applications.

High-Performance Solutions for Diverse Applications: CD Genomics Product Portfolio

Amidst the dynamic realm of molecular diagnostics and research, CD Genomics proudly unveils an extensive array of pioneering products, meticulously crafted to tackle precise challenges encountered in nucleic acid analysis. Spanning from the realm of infectious disease detection to the intricacies of cancer profiling, our diverse selection of real-time qPCR kits and panels stands as a testament to our steadfast dedication to propelling scientific inquiry forward and enhancing patient care pathways.

Infectious Disease Detection

Cat. No. Product Name Brief Description
RTPK153 CD SARS-CoV-2 Mplex RT-PCR Detection Kit The CD SARS-CoV-2 Mplex Detection Kit is used for the quantification and detection of SARS-CoV-2.
RTPK150 CD Food Norovirus Genogroup II Virus RT-PCR Kit The CD Food Norovirus Genogroup II Virus Real-time RT-PCR Kit is used for the quantification and detection of Norovirus Genogroup II Virus in food samples.
RTPK154 CD Murine Norovirus (MNV) Process Control RT-PCR Kit The CD Murine Norovirus (MNV) Process Control Real-time RT-PCR Kit is used for the quantification and detection of Murine Norovirus (MNV) process control virus in environmental samples.
RTPK149 CD Food Norovirus Genogroup I Virus RT-PCR Kit The CD Food Norovirus Genogroup I Virus Real-time RT-PCR Kit is used for the quantification and detection of Norovirus Genogroup in food samples.
RTPK152 CD Food Hepatitis A Virus RT-PCR Kit The CD Food Hepatitis A Virus Real-time RT-PCR Kit is used for the quantification and detection of Hepatitis A Virus in food samples.

Oncology Profiling

Cat. No. Product Name Brief Description
PN210 CD Colorectal Cancer Gene RT-PCR Panel ( KRAS, NRAS, BRAF, PIK3CA, AKT1) CD Colorectal Cancer Gene RT-PCR Panel ( KRAS, NRAS, BRAF, PIK3CA, AKT1) is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based assay that uses allele-specific primers in a multiplex reaction to identify the presence of KRAS, NRAS, BRAF, PIK3CA and AKT1 mutations in a total of 6 reactions per sample.
PN234 CD Thyroid Cancer Mutation Detection Kit CD Thyroid Cancer Mutation Panel provides reagents for detection of point mutations in BRAF and RAS genes, as well as RET/PTC1,3 and PAX8/PPARg fusion gene variants.

Environmental Monitoring and Food Safety

Cat. No. Product Name Brief Description
PN229 CD Lung Cancer RNA Panel (ALK, RET, ROS1, MET) CD Lung Cancer RNA Panel (ALK, RET, ROS1, MET) provides reagents for detecting ALK, ROS1, and RET fusion genes as well as MET exon 14 skipping mutations in human lung RNA.
PN231 CD BRAF Codon 600 RT-PCR Kit CD BRAF Codon 600 RT-PCR Kit is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based assay that uses allele-specific probes to identify the presence of the BRAF V600E, V600K, V600D, V600R, V600M and V600G mutations.
PN232 CD c-Kit RT-PCR Kit CD c-Kit RT-PCR Kit is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based assay that uses allele-specific primers to identify the presence of somatic mutations in c-KIT genes.

Cancer Profiling and Mutation Detection in RNA Viruses

DNA Viruses

Virus Family Virus Type CD Genomics Product
Herpesviridae Herpes simplex virus CD HSV1&2 Real-time PCR Kit
CD HSV1 Real-time PCR Kit
CD HSV2 Real-time PCR Kit
Human herpesvirus CD HHV-8 (Kaposi Sarcoma Virus) Real-time PCR Kit
Epstein–Barr virus CD HHV4 (Epstein Barr Virus) Real-time PCR Kit


  1. Manit Aryat, lqbal S Shergill, Magali Williamson, Lyndon Gommersall, Neehar Arya and Hitendra RH Patel. Basic principles of real-time quantitative PCR. Expert Review of Molecular Diagnostics 2005
  2. Artika IM, Dewi YP, Nainggolan IM, Siregar JE, Antonjaya U. Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction: Current Techniques, Applications, and Role in COVID-19 Diagnosis. Genes (Basel). 2022
* For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.

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