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Bone to pick: the importance of evaluating reference genes for RT-qPCR quantification of gene expression in craniosynostosis and bone-related tissues and cells

Xianxian Yang12, Jodie T Hatfield2, Susan J Hinze2, Xiongzheng Mu1, Peter J Anderson234 and Barry C Powell24*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Shanghai Ninth People’s Hospital, Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, Shanghai, China

2 Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute, Adelaide, Australia

3 Australian Craniofacial Unit, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Adelaide, Australia

4 Discipline of Paediatrics, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia

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BMC Research Notes 2012, 5:222  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-5-222

Published: 8 May 2012



RT-qPCR is a common tool for quantification of gene expression, but its accuracy is dependent on the choice and stability (steady state expression levels) of the reference gene/s used for normalization. To date, in the bone field, there have been few studies to determine the most stable reference genes and, usually, RT-qPCR data is normalised to non-validated reference genes, most commonly GAPDH, ACTB and 18 S rRNA. Here we draw attention to the potential deleterious impact of using classical reference genes to normalise expression data for bone studies without prior validation of their stability.


Using the geNorm and Normfinder programs, panels of mouse and human genes were assessed for their stability under three different experimental conditions: 1) disease progression of Crouzon syndrome (craniosynostosis) in a mouse model, 2) proliferative culture of cranial suture cells isolated from craniosynostosis patients and 3) osteogenesis of a mouse bone marrow stromal cell line. We demonstrate that classical reference genes are not always the most ‘stable’ genes and that gene ‘stability’ is highly dependent on experimental conditions. Selected stable genes, individually or in combination, were then used to normalise osteocalcin and alkaline phosphatase gene expression data during cranial suture fusion in the craniosynostosis mouse model and strategies compared. Strikingly, the expression trends of alkaline phosphatase and osteocalcin varied significantly when normalised to the least stable, the most stable or the three most stable genes.


To minimise errors in evaluating gene expression levels, analysis of a reference panel and subsequent normalization to several stable genes is strongly recommended over normalization to a single gene. In particular, we conclude that use of single, non-validated “housekeeping” genes such as GAPDH, ACTB and 18 S rRNA, currently a widespread practice by researchers in the bone field, is likely to produce data of questionable reliability when changes are 2 fold or less, and such data should be interpreted with due caution.

Osteocalcin; Alkaline phosphatase; 18 S RNA; Gapdh; β-actin; geNorm; Normfinder; Craniosynostosis; Bone; Mineralization