The External RNA Controls Consortium (ERCC) has issued for comment a draft plan for the selection and qualification of candidate RNA sequences, to be used as controls for assessing the performance of gene expression experiments. The ERCC is an ad hoc group of about 50 companies, universities and federal laboratories joined to develop materials and tools that will be used to establish the performance of DNA microarrays and other quantitative experiments that measure gene expression. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a founding member and host of the consortium.
Gene expression—how and under what conditions specific genes produce which proteins, and why—is one of the most important frontiers in bioscience today, promising a better understanding of fundamental life processes and the discovery of important biomarkers for early disease diagnosis. The field was advanced enormously by the development of powerful technologies such as quantitative, real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (QRT-PCR) and the DNA microarray. Both techniques for analyzing gene expression, however, are complex, involve multiple steps, various detection technologies and many potential sources of error. At present, it is difficult to establish the quality of any particular experiment.
The ERCC proposes to develop consistent, well-characterized RNA samples that can be added into gene expression assays as a check on the performance of the measurement system. These proposed "external RNA controls"—approximately 100 are envisioned—would be chosen to deliver comparable results across the range of available microarray and QRT-PCR systems.
Because selecting a set of RNA controls that perform consistently is essential to the success of the project, the ERCC is planning extensive experimental qualification of the set. They are publishing for public comment a draft specification of its proposed methods for testing and selecting the final set of external RNA controls. The document, "Proposed Methods for Testing and Selecting the ERCC External RNA Controls," is available on-line. Comments can be forwarded via e-mail to ercc [at] NIST.gov.
The ERCC will hold a workshop on Oct. 4-5, 2005, at the Lister Hill Center Auditorium at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., to discuss the draft protocol and review comments. For further information send e-mail to ercc [at] nist.gov.