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Open Access Research article

Exploring the use of internal and externalcontrols for assessing microarray technical performance

Katrice A Lippa1*, David L Duewer1, Marc L Salit1, Laurence Game2 and Helen C Causton23

Author Affiliations

1 Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory.National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Gaithersburg, Maryland 20899 USA

2 MRC Clinical Sciences Centre (CSC) Imperial College Microarray Centre Hammersmith Hospital Campus London W12 0NN, UK

3 Department of Biological Sciences Columbia University New York, NY 10027 USA

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BMC Research Notes 2010, 3:349  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-3-349

Published: 28 December 2010



The maturing of gene expression microarray technology and interest in the use of microarray-based applications for clinical and diagnostic applications calls for quantitative measures of quality. This manuscript presents a retrospective study characterizing several approaches to assess technical performance of microarray data measured on the Affymetrix GeneChip platform, including whole-array metrics and information from a standard mixture of external spike-in and endogenous internal controls. Spike-in controls were found to carry the same information about technical performance as whole-array metrics and endogenous "housekeeping" genes. These results support the use of spike-in controls as general tools for performance assessment across time, experimenters and array batches, suggesting that they have potential for comparison of microarray data generated across species using different technologies.


A layered PCA modeling methodology that uses data from a number of classes of controls (spike-in hybridization, spike-in polyA+, internal RNA degradation, endogenous or "housekeeping genes") was used for the assessment of microarray data quality. The controls provide information on multiple stages of the experimental protocol (e.g., hybridization, RNA amplification). External spike-in, hybridization and RNA labeling controls provide information related to both assay and hybridization performance whereas internal endogenous controls provide quality information on the biological sample. We find that the variance of the data generated from the external and internal controls carries critical information about technical performance; the PCA dissection of this variance is consistent with whole-array quality assessment based on a number of quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) metrics.


These results provide support for the use of both external and internal RNA control data to assess the technical quality of microarray experiments. The observed consistency amongst the information carried by internal and external controls and whole-array quality measures offers promise for rationally-designed control standards for routine performance monitoring of multiplexed measurement platforms.