CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 2, 2010 Fictional candy maker Willy Wonka called his whimsical device to sort good chocolate eggs from bad, an eggucator. Likewise, by determining what enzymes and compounds to keep and which to discard, scientists are aiming to find their own golden eggs: more potent drugs and cleaner sources of energy.
Toward that end, Harvard researchers and a team of international collaborators demonstrated a new microfluidic sorting device that rapidly analyzes millions of biological reactions. Smaller than an iPod Nano, the device analyzes reactions a 1,000-times faster and uses 10 million-fold less volumes of reagent than conventional state-of-the-art robotic methods.
The scientists anticipate that the invention could reduce screening costs by 1 million-fold and make directed evolution, a means of engineering tailored biological compounds, more commonplace in the lab.
"Our finding is not so much a scientific discovery, but the first demonstration of a new technology," says project leader Jeremy Agresti, a former research associate in the lab of co-author David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Department of Physics. "What limits new areas of research in biology and biotechnology is the ability to assay or to do experiments on many different variables in parallel at once."
The team's technology, first reported in the February 8th online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bypasses conventional limitations through the use of drop-based microfluidics, squeezing tiny capsules of liquid through a series of intricate tubes, each narrower than a single human hair.
"Each microscopic drop can trap an individual cell and thus it becomes like a miniature test tube," explains Amy Rowat, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS. "The drops are coated with a surfactant, or stabiliz
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