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Speeding Up Evolution, More

People in the synthetic biology community have been excited for some time now about the potential of microfluidics to enable and advance their research agendas. Recently, a group composed of researchers from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and international collaborators demonstrated a new microfluidic sorting device, smaller than an iPod Nano, that analyzes biological reactions 1,000-times faster 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 — the engineering of custom biological compounds — more commonplace in the lab.

Harvard touts the breakthrough as “a boon for the burgeoning field of synthetic biology,” which would allow, for example, biofuels developers to screen populations of millions of organisms or metabolic pathways to find the most efficient producer of a chemical or fuel. Or scientists could speed up the pace of drug development, identifying promising chemical candidate compounds and then evolving them based upon specific desired properties.

“The high speed of our technique allows us to go through multiple cycles of mutation and screening in a very short time,” says project leader Jeremy Agresti of Harvard. “This is the way evolution works best. The more generations you can get through, the faster you can make progress.”

Harvard’s release includes an embedded animation demonstrating the sorting device in action.

Caption: The microfluidic sorting device removes inactive and unwanted compounds, dumping the drops into a “bad egg” bin, and guides the others into a “keep” container. Specifically, as the drops flow through the channels they eventually encounter a junction (a two-channel fork). The device identifies the desired drops by using a laser focused on the channel before the fork to read a drop’s fluorescence level. The drops with greater intensity of fluorescence (those exhibiting the highest levels of activity) are pulled towards the keep channel by the application of an electrical force, a process known as dielectrophoresis.

Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Agresti, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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