What's the Difference?

RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction) and qPCR (Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction) are both molecular biology techniques used to amplify and detect specific DNA or RNA sequences. However, they differ in their applications and capabilities. RT-PCR is primarily used to convert RNA into complementary DNA (cDNA) before amplification, making it suitable for studying gene expression and detecting RNA viruses. On the other hand, qPCR is a more advanced version of PCR that allows for real-time monitoring of the amplification process. It provides quantitative data on the initial amount of DNA or RNA present in a sample, making it ideal for quantifying gene expression levels, detecting pathogens, and analyzing genetic variations. Overall, while RT-PCR is focused on converting RNA to cDNA, qPCR offers the advantage of real-time quantification, making it a powerful tool for various research and diagnostic applications.


Full FormReverse Transcription Polymerase Chain ReactionQuantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction
PrincipleConverts RNA to complementary DNA (cDNA) and amplifies itAmplifies DNA and measures the amount in real-time
ApplicationDetecting and quantifying gene expressionDetecting and quantifying gene expression, DNA sequencing, genotyping, etc.
Enzyme UsedReverse Transcriptase and DNA PolymeraseDNA Polymerase
Primer TypeGene-specific primersGene-specific primers or probe-based primers
Amplification MethodEnd-point amplificationReal-time amplification
QuantificationNot quantitative, only qualitativeQuantitative, measures the amount of DNA in real-time
AnalysisRequires gel electrophoresis or other post-amplification analysisReal-time analysis, provides continuous data during amplification
SensitivityLess sensitive compared to qPCRMore sensitive compared to RT-PCR

Further Detail


Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) and Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) are two widely used molecular biology techniques that play crucial roles in various fields, including medical diagnostics, genetic research, and forensic analysis. While both methods are based on the principles of PCR, they differ in their applications, sensitivity, specificity, and data analysis. In this article, we will explore the attributes of RT-PCR and qPCR, highlighting their similarities and differences.

Principle and Workflow

RT-PCR and qPCR share a common principle of amplifying specific DNA sequences using the enzymatic activity of DNA polymerase. However, the key difference lies in the initial step of the workflow. RT-PCR involves an additional step of reverse transcription, where RNA is first converted into complementary DNA (cDNA) using reverse transcriptase enzyme. This step allows the amplification of RNA targets, making RT-PCR a valuable tool for studying gene expression and detecting RNA viruses. On the other hand, qPCR directly amplifies DNA targets without the need for reverse transcription, making it suitable for quantifying DNA targets and detecting DNA viruses.

Target Detection and Sensitivity

Both RT-PCR and qPCR offer high sensitivity in detecting target sequences, but their applications differ based on the type of nucleic acid being analyzed. RT-PCR is particularly useful for detecting low abundance RNA targets due to the amplification of cDNA. This makes it an ideal choice for studying gene expression levels, identifying viral infections, and detecting RNA-based pathogens. In contrast, qPCR is highly sensitive in detecting DNA targets, making it suitable for quantifying gene copy numbers, analyzing genetic variations, and detecting DNA-based pathogens.

Specificity and Contamination Control

Ensuring specificity and minimizing contamination are critical aspects of PCR-based techniques. Both RT-PCR and qPCR employ specific primers that anneal to the target sequences, allowing amplification of only the desired DNA fragments. However, qPCR offers an additional level of specificity through the use of fluorescent probes, such as TaqMan probes or SYBR Green dye, which bind specifically to the amplified DNA during the reaction. This enables real-time monitoring of the amplification process and provides enhanced specificity by detecting the presence of the target sequence in each cycle. Additionally, qPCR workflows often incorporate stringent contamination control measures, such as the use of uracil-DNA glycosylase (UNG) enzyme and dUTP incorporation, to prevent carryover contamination from previous reactions.

Quantification and Data Analysis

As the name suggests, qPCR is primarily used for quantitative analysis, allowing precise measurement of the initial amount of target DNA. This is achieved through the incorporation of fluorescent dyes or probes that emit a signal proportional to the amount of amplified DNA. The real-time monitoring of fluorescence during each amplification cycle enables the generation of amplification curves, which can be used to determine the initial target quantity. Additionally, qPCR allows the calculation of relative gene expression levels by comparing the amplification of the target gene with a reference gene. On the other hand, RT-PCR is not inherently quantitative and is often used for qualitative analysis, such as confirming the presence or absence of a specific RNA target. However, with the use of appropriate standards and controls, RT-PCR can also be employed for semi-quantitative analysis.


Both RT-PCR and qPCR find extensive applications in various fields of research and diagnostics. RT-PCR is commonly used in gene expression studies, viral load quantification, detection of RNA-based pathogens like SARS-CoV-2, and identification of genetic disorders caused by RNA mutations. It is also utilized in forensic analysis for RNA profiling and identification. On the other hand, qPCR is widely employed in genetic research, including genotyping, mutation analysis, and copy number variation detection. It is also extensively used in clinical diagnostics for detecting DNA-based pathogens, monitoring minimal residual disease, and analyzing gene expression changes in diseases like cancer.


RT-PCR and qPCR are powerful molecular biology techniques that have revolutionized the field of nucleic acid analysis. While both methods are based on the principles of PCR, they differ in their applications, sensitivity, specificity, and data analysis. RT-PCR is particularly useful for studying gene expression and detecting RNA targets, while qPCR is highly sensitive in quantifying DNA targets. Both techniques have their unique advantages and are indispensable tools in various research and diagnostic settings. Understanding the attributes of RT-PCR and qPCR allows researchers and clinicians to choose the most appropriate method for their specific needs, ensuring accurate and reliable results.

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