Tutorial: guidelines for the experimental design of single-cell RNA sequencing studies

Abstract

Single-cell RNA sequencing is at the forefront of high-resolution phenotyping experiments for complex samples. Although this methodology requires specialized equipment and expertise, it is now widely applied in research. However, it is challenging to create broadly applicable experimental designs because each experiment requires the user to make informed decisions about sample preparation, RNA sequencing and data analysis. To facilitate this decision-making process, in this tutorial we summarize current methodological and analytical options, and discuss their suitability for a range of research scenarios. Specifically, we provide information about best practices for the separation of individual cells and provide an overview of current single-cell capture methods at different cellular resolutions and scales. Methods for the preparation of RNA sequencing libraries vary profoundly across applications, and we discuss features important for an informed selection process. An erroneous or biased analysis can lead to misinterpretations or obscure biologically important information. We provide a guide to the major data processing steps and options for meaningful data interpretation. These guidelines will serve as a reference to support users in building a single-cell experimental framework—from sample preparation to data interpretation—that is tailored to the underlying research context.

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Fig. 1: The single-cell RNA sequencing process.

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Acknowledgements

H.H. is a Miguel Servet (CP14/00229) researcher funded by the Spanish Institute of Health Carlos III (ISCIII). This work received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. H2020-MSCA-ITN-2015-675752 (SINGEK; A.L.) and the Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades (SAF2017-89109-P; AEI/FEDER, UE; H.H.). This project has been made possible in part by grant no. 2018-182827 (H.H.) from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. We thank ThePaperMill for critical reading and scientific editing services. Core funding was provided by the ISCIII and the Generalitat de Catalunya.

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The authors contributed to the various sections of this tutorial as follows: A.L., Data processing and Data analysis; C.M., Sample preparation; S.P., Optimization (Box 1); H.H., Design, Sample preparation, Single-cell RNA sequencing, Further technical considerations and Future directions. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Holger Heyn.

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Lafzi, A., Moutinho, C., Picelli, S. et al. Tutorial: guidelines for the experimental design of single-cell RNA sequencing studies. Nat Protoc 13, 2742–2757 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41596-018-0073-y

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