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Acc Chem Res. 2009 May 19;42(5):649-58. doi: 10.1021/ar8002464.

Chemistry and biology in femtoliter and picoliter volume droplets.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of Washington, Box 351700, Seattle, Washington 98195-1700, USA.


The basic unit of any biological system is the cell, and malfunctions at the single-cell level can result in devastating diseases; in cancer metastasis, for example, a single cell seeds the formation of a distant tumor. Although tiny, a cell is a highly heterogeneous and compartmentalized structure: proteins, lipids, RNA, and small-molecule metabolites constantly traffic among intracellular organelles. Gaining detailed information about the spatiotemporal distribution of these biomolecules is crucial to our understanding of cellular function and dysfunction. To access this information, we need sensitive tools that are capable of extracting comprehensive biochemical information from single cells and subcellular organelles. In this Account, we outline our approach and highlight our progress toward mapping the spatiotemporal organization of information flow in single cells. Our technique is centered on the use of femtoliter- and picoliter-sized droplets as nanolabs for manipulating single cells and subcellular compartments. We have developed a single-cell nanosurgical technique for isolating select subcellular structures from live cells, a capability that is needed for the high-resolution manipulation and chemical analysis of single cells. Our microfluidic approaches for generating single femtoliter-sized droplets on demand include both pressure and electric field methods; we have also explored a design for the on-demand generation of multiple aqueous droplets to increase throughput. Droplet formation is only the first step in a sequence that requires manipulation, fusion, transport, and analysis. Optical approaches provide the most convenient and precise control over the formed droplets with our technology platform; we describe aqueous droplet manipulation with optical vortex traps, which enable the remarkable ability to dynamically "tune" the concentration of the contents. Integration of thermoelectric manipulations with these techniques affords further control. The amount of chemical information that can be gleaned from single cells and organelles is critically dependent on the methods available for analyzing droplet contents. We describe three techniques we have developed: (i) droplet encapsulation, rapid cell lysis, and fluorescence-based single-cell assays, (ii) physical sizing of the subcellular organelles and nanoparticles in droplets, and (iii) capillary electrophoresis (CE) analysis of droplet contents. For biological studies, we are working to integrate the different components of our technology into a robust, automated device; we are also addressing an anticipated need for higher throughput. With progress in these areas, we hope to cement our technique as a new tool for studying single cells and organelles with unprecedented molecular detail.

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