Lately, it feels like a disproportionately large number of companies we have seen at KdT deploy or manipulate microfluidic technology of various flavors (continuous flow, droplet based, digital, etc…). For a field that has its origins in inkjet printing back in the 1970s, the team has internally been asking — why does microfluidics seem so ubiquitous now? Is this the golden age for microfluidics in biology?
Interestingly, it might be. As our aperture of biological study has narrowed from bulk tissue to that of the single cells, microfluidics is playing a key role in the incubation, carriage, and analysis of these tiniest of biological snapshots. Analogous to the benefits associated with miniaturization in the integrated circuits industry, the benefits associated with miniaturization of bioanalytical techniques include the reduction of the size of equipment, faster analysis, and accelerated reaction times, parallel operations for multiple analyses, and the possibility of portable devices.
Driving the proliferation of this embedded technology are three main enablements:
Fabrication — As mentioned above, microfluidics draws much of its design principles from the circuit industry. Advances within integrated circuit design and fabrication, such as micromachining, photolithography, replica molding, embossing, and injection molding have dramatically decreased cost and increased complexity of microfluidic design. The effect of Intel, TSMC, NVIDIA and other chip designers can be felt across the chemical and biological world.
Optics — Recent advances in camera resolution, image capture, integrated detection techniques, and computational image analysis have paved the way for sophisticated circuits to function in a continuous real time fashion. Microsensing powered by optics will continue to augment and push the bounds of what these microfluidic systems can accomplish.
Downstream analytical techniques — Molecular biological hacks like barcoding coupled with generalized yet sophisticated sample preparation for downstream analysis such as sequencing allow for efficient pooling of samples. This further decreases the cost of end analysis while simultaneously increasing throughput.
At KdT, we feel that given the rapid commoditization of microfluidics thanks to some of the advances outlined above, the most relevant question is not whether you utilize this powerful technology but where you aim it. Let’s go small and solve some big problems.