Spatially isolated reactions in a complex array: using magnetic beads to purify and quantify nucleic acids with digital and quantitative real-time PCR in thousands of parallel microwells†
Quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR) has been the standard for nucleic acid quantification as it has a large dynamic range and good sensitivity. Digital PCR is rapidly supplanting qPCR in many applications as it provides excellent quantitative precision. However, both techniques require extensive sample preparation, and highly multiplexed assays that quantify multiple targets can be difficult to design and optimize. Here we describe a new nucleic acid quantification method that we call Spatially Isolated Reactions in a Complex Array (SIRCA), a highly parallel nucleic acid preparation, amplification, and detection approach that uses superparamagnetic microbeads in an array of thousands of 100 fL microwells to simplify sample purification and reduce reagent dispensing steps. Primers, attached to superparamagnetic microbeads through a thermo-labile bond, capture and separate target sequences from the sample. The microbeads are then magnetically loaded into a microwell array such that wells predominately contain a single bead. Master mix, lacking primers, is added before sealing the reaction wells with hydrophobic oil. Thermocycling releases the primer pair from the beads during PCR amplification. At low target concentrations, most beads capture, on average, less than one target molecule, and precise, digital PCR quantification can be derived from the percentage of positive reactions. At higher concentrations, qPCR signal is used to determine the average number of target molecules per reaction, significantly extending the dynamic range beyond the digital saturation point. We demonstrate that SIRCA can quantify DNA and RNA targets using thousands of parallel reactions, achieving attomolar limits of detection and a linear dynamic range of 105. The work reported here is a first step towards multiplexed SIRCA assays.