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Anal Chem. 2014 Mar 4;86(5):2526-33. doi: 10.1021/ac403585p. Epub 2014 Feb 11.

One in a million: flow cytometric sorting of single cell-lysate assays in monodisperse picolitre double emulsion droplets for directed evolution.

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Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge , 80 Tennis Court Road, Cambridge CB2 1GA, U.K.


Directed evolution relies on iterative cycles of randomization and selection. The outcome of an artificial evolution experiment is crucially dependent on (i) the numbers of variants that can be screened and (ii) the quality of the assessment of each clone that forms the basis for selection. Compartmentalization of screening assays in water-in-oil emulsion droplets provides an opportunity to screen vast numbers of individual assays with good signal quality. Microfluidic systems have been developed to make and sort droplets, but the operator skill required precludes their ready implementation in nonspecialist settings. We now establish a protocol for the creation of monodisperse double-emulsion droplets in two steps in microfluidic devices with different surface characteristics (first hydrophobic, then hydrophilic). The resulting double-emulsion droplets are suitable for quantitative analysis and sorting in a commercial flow cytometer. The power of this approach is demonstrated in a series of enrichment experiments, culminating in the successful recovery of catalytically active clones from a sea of 1 000 000-fold as many low-activity variants. The modular workflow allows integration of additional steps: the encapsulated lysate assay reactions can be stopped by heat inactivation (enabling ready control of selection stringency), the droplet size can be contracted (to concentrate its contents), and storage (at -80 °C) is possible for discontinuous workflows. The control that can be thus exerted on screening conditions will facilitate exploitation of the potential of protein libraries compartmentalized in droplets in a straightforward protocol that can be readily implemented and used by protein engineers.

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