Hydrogel Droplet Microfluidics for High-Throughput Single Molecule/Cell Analysis
Conspectus Heterogeneity among individual molecules and cells has posed significant challenges to traditional bulk assays, due to the assumption of average behavior, which would lose important biological information in heterogeneity and result in a misleading interpretation. Single molecule/cell analysis has become an important and emerging field in biological and biomedical research for insights into heterogeneity between large populations at high resolution. Compared with the ensemble bulk method, single molecule/cell analysis explores the information on time trajectories, conformational states, and interactions of individual molecules/cells, all key factors in the study of chemical and biological reaction pathways. Various powerful techniques have been developed for single molecule/cell analysis, including flow cytometry, atomic force microscopy, optical and magnetic tweezers, single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy, and so forth. However, some of them have the low-throughput issue that has to analyze single molecules/cells one by one. Flow cytometry is a widely used high-throughput technique for single cell analysis but lacks the ability for intercellular interaction study and local environment control. Droplet microfluidics becomes attractive for single molecule/cell manipulation because single molecules/cells can be individually encased in monodisperse microdroplets, allowing high-throughput analysis and manipulation with precise control of the local environment. Moreover, hydrogels, cross-linked polymer networks that swell in the presence of water, have been introduced into droplet microfluidic systems as hydrogel droplet microfluidics. By replacing an aqueous phase with a monomer or polymer solution, hydrogel droplets can be generated on microfluidic chips for encapsulation of single molecules/cells according to the Poisson distribution. The sol–gel transition property endows the hydrogel droplets with new functionalities and diversified applications in single molecule/cell analysis. The hydrogel can act as a 3D cell culture matrix to mimic the extracellular environment for long-term single cell culture, which allows further heterogeneity study in proliferation, drug screening, and metastasis at the single-cell level. The sol–gel transition allows reactions in solution to be performed rapidly and efficiently with product storage in the gel for flexible downstream manipulation and analysis. More importantly, controllable sol–gel regulation provides a new way to maintain phenotype-genotype linkages in the hydrogel matrix for high throughput molecular evolution. In this Account, we will review the hydrogel droplet generation on microfluidics, single molecule/cell encapsulation in hydrogel droplets, as well as the progress made by our group and others in the application of hydrogel droplet microfluidics for single molecule/cell analysis, including single cell culture, single molecule/cell detection, single cell sequencing, and molecular evolution. Graphic Abstract
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