Bulk RNA Sequencing vs. Single Cell RNA Sequencing

What is Bulk RNA sequencing?

Bulk RNA-seq, or bulk RNA sequencing, allows researchers to analyze the entire transcriptome of a sample, providing valuable insights into the types and quantities of RNA molecules present.

The fundamental principle underlying bulk RNA-seq involves the isolation of RNA from a given sample, subsequent conversion of the RNA into complementary DNA (cDNA), and ultimately sequencing the resulting cDNA fragments employing advanced high-throughput sequencing technologies. The acquired sequence reads are subsequently aligned to a reference genome or transcriptome, facilitating the quantification of each RNA molecule's abundance based on the number of aligned reads.

Libraries Used in Bulk RNA-Seq

In bulk RNA-seq, two primary types of libraries are employed: mRNA-only libraries and whole transcriptome libraries excluding ribosomal RNA (rRNA). The mRNA-only libraries selectively capture and sequence messenger RNAs (mRNAs), which are responsible for encoding proteins. These libraries are particularly advantageous when the objective is to identify genes with differential expression and gain insights into gene regulation.

Conversely, whole transcriptome libraries encompass the sequencing of all RNA species, excluding rRNA. This comprehensive approach encompasses not only mRNAs but also non-coding RNAs, including long non-coding RNAs and small non-coding RNAs, which play critical regulatory roles within cells. Whole transcriptome sequencing provides a more encompassing panorama of the transcriptome and facilitates the exploration of alternative splicing, novel transcripts, and other non-coding RNA elements.

Outlines of two types of bulk RNA-seq libraries.Outlines of two types of bulk RNA-seq libraries. (Li et al., 2021)

Applications of Bulk RNA-Seq

Bulk RNA-seq has a wide range of applications in biological and biomedical research. It is commonly used in cancer research to identify differentially expressed genes between normal and tumor samples, to classify tumors into subtypes based on gene expression patterns, and to discover potential biomarkers for diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment response prediction. It also enables the study of cellular responses to stimuli, developmental processes, and the exploration of gene regulatory networks.

  • Cancer research: Bulk RNA-seq has greatly contributed to our understanding of cancer biology. It helps identify genes and signaling pathways involved in tumor development, progression, and metastasis. It enables the discovery of potential cancer biomarkers and therapeutic targets.
  • Disease studies: Bulk RNA-seq has been applied to various diseases, including neurological disorders, cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune diseases, and infectious diseases. It aids in identifying disease-specific gene expression signatures, potential disease mechanisms, and biomarkers for diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment response.
  • Drug discovery and development: Bulk RNA-seq facilitates the identification of gene expression changes in response to drug treatment. It helps uncover molecular targets, mechanisms of action, and potential drug resistance mechanisms. Bulk RNA-seq data can assist in optimizing drug selection and developing personalized treatment approaches.
  • Developmental biology: Bulk RNA-seq is used to study gene expression patterns during embryonic development and tissue differentiation. It helps identify key genes and regulatory networks involved in developmental processes.
  • Biomarker discovery: Bulk RNA-seq enables the identification of gene expression signatures or biomarkers associated with specific phenotypes, diseases, or treatment responses. These biomarkers can be useful for diagnostic, prognostic, or predictive purposes in clinical settings.
  • Functional genomics: Bulk RNA-seq data can be integrated with other genomic and proteomic datasets to gain a comprehensive understanding of gene regulation and functional interactions within biological systems.

What is Single-cell RNA Sequencing?

Single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) is an advanced genomics technology that enables the meticulous analysis of gene expression profiles at an individual cell level. Unlike conventional bulk RNA sequencing, which provides an average gene expression profile from a mixed cell population, scRNA-seq allows for the precise examination of each cell's gene expression patterns. This technique offers valuable insights into cellular heterogeneity, rare cell subpopulations, and the intrinsic variability among cells within a given tissue or sample.

Among the various scRNA-seq approaches available, one popular method utilizes droplet microfluidics technology, exemplified by the 10X Genomics Chromium system mentioned earlier. In this system, cells are individually encapsulated into droplets containing uniquely barcoded beads and reverse transcription reagents. Within each droplet, the RNA molecules from the cell are captured and labeled with cell-specific barcodes and unique molecular identifiers (UMIs). This process enables the subsequent identification and quantification of transcripts from individual cells during the sequencing phase.

In addition to droplet-based techniques, scRNA-seq can be performed using plate-based technologies, where single cells are manually or robotically sorted into individual wells or microwell plates for RNA capture and library preparation. Furthermore, emerging spatial transcriptomics methodologies, as mentioned previously, provide valuable information regarding gene expression within the spatial context of tissue architecture.

Explore more details by referring to A Beginner's Guide to Single-cell RNA Sequencing.

Workflow of 10X genomics single cell sequencing.Workflow of 10X genomics single cell sequencing. (Li et al., 2021)

Features of scRNA-seq

The advantages of scRNA-seq are multifaceted. It allows for the discovery and characterization of rare cell types or subpopulations that may remain concealed in bulk analysis. By revealing cellular heterogeneity and transcriptional dynamics, scRNA-seq facilitates investigations into developmental processes, disease progression, and the response to treatments at a resolution that captures individual cells. Moreover, this technique holds the potential to unveil novel biomarkers, therapeutic targets, and molecular pathways associated with specific cell types or disease states.

Nonetheless, scRNA-seq is not without its challenges and limitations. Careful handling of cells is crucial to preserve their viability and prevent biases during the sample preparation stage. Amplification steps involved in library preparation can introduce technical noise and biases, while the sequencing depth may hinder the detection of genes expressed at low levels. Additionally, scRNA-seq does not capture other molecular features such as DNA mutations, protein levels, or epigenetic modifications, which are essential for comprehensively understanding cellular functions.

Please read our article Single-Cell RNA Sequencing: Introduction, Applications, and Technologies.

What Are the Differences Between Bulk RNA Sequencing and Single Cell RNA Sequencing?

Bulk RNA sequencing and single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) are two powerful techniques used in genomics research to analyze gene expression patterns. While both methods aim to capture RNA expression, they differ in their goals, protocols, quality control measures, normalization strategies, and data analyses.

Aspect Bulk RNA Sequencing Single-Cell RNA Sequencing
Goal Obtain average gene expression profile from a population of cells. Analyze gene expression at the individual cell level to identify cell types and explore cellular heterogeneity.
Protocol RNA is extracted from a pool of cells. RNA mixture is converted into cDNA. Sequencing is performed on the cDNA. Individual cells are isolated using techniques such as microfluidics or droplet-based methods. Each cell's RNA is captured and converted into cDNA, followed by separate sequencing for each cell.
Quality Control Focuses on RNA extraction and library preparation steps, ensuring high-quality input material with minimal degradation or contamination. Includes assessment of cell viability, RNA integrity, and capture efficiency. Evaluation of technical aspects like the number of genes detected per cell and the number of unique molecular identifiers (UMIs) captured.
Normalization Methods like RPKM or TPM are used to equalize read counts between samples, facilitating meaningful comparisons. Normalization methods account for differences in sequencing depth, library size, and cell-specific biases. Examples include size factor-based normalization or normalization using reference features (e.g., housekeeping genes).
Analyses Comparisons of gene expression between conditions or time points. Identification of differentially expressed genes. Pathway enrichment analyses. Focuses on population-level changes. Cell clustering to identify cell types or states. Characterization of cell-specific gene expression profiles. Inference of cell trajectories. Exploration of gene regulatory networks. Captures cellular heterogeneity and dynamics within a population.

How to Choose?

Choosing between bulk RNA sequencing and scRNA-seq depends on the research goals and the biological question being addressed. Consider the following factors:

  • Research Objective: Determine whether you need a global view of gene expression (bulk RNA-seq) or require insights into cellular heterogeneity and rare cell types (scRNA-seq).
  • Sample Complexity: Evaluate the complexity of the biological system. If it contains diverse cell types or exhibits cell-to-cell variability, scRNA-seq would be more suitable.
  • Cost and Resources: Consider the available budget, time, and the amount of starting material. Bulk RNA sequencing is generally more cost-effective and requires less input material.
  • Technical Challenges: Assess the technical expertise and resources available in your lab. scRNA-seq is technically demanding, requiring specialized protocols and data analysis techniques.
  • It's worth noting that the choice is not always mutually exclusive. Some studies may involve a combination of bulk RNA sequencing and scRNA-seq, where bulk RNA-seq provides an overview while scRNA-seq provides a more detailed characterization of specific cell populations or states.


  1. Li, Xinmin, and Cun-Yu Wang. "From bulk, single-cell to spatial RNA sequencing." International Journal of Oral Science 13.1 (2021): 36.
* For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.

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