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Overview & IntroductionMicrofluidics is the scientific field which studies the manipulation of small amounts of fluids on the scale of microliters and nanoliters. Engineered systems have been created to move and manipulate these fluids within microfluidic devices. The application of microfluidics in synthetic biology research will enable scientists to design and implement synthetic biology systems more efficiently and with greater reproducibility. Currently, these devices have been incorporated in fields such as genetic analysis, DNA amplification, cell-based assays and analysis, point-of-care diagnostics, drug discovery, and more.
Problem StatementWhile microfluidics is not new to the field of synthetic biology, it is not currently widely used or accessible to many benchtop biologists. The current “lab on a chip” microfluidic devices are highly specialized to each experiment and expensive to manufacture. In order to analyze the results of the experiments on microfluidic chips, many designs embed sensors directly into the chip. Many of these sensors, however, already exist in traditional analytical devices, such as plate readers. These devices could be used for analysis of microfluidic outputs if the outputs were dispensed selectively into a compatible vessel, such as a microtiter plate. If this were possible, synthetic biologists would be able to incorporate microfluidic chips to streamline their experiments without sinking time and money to design and fabricate highly specialized chips. Therefore an application agnostic system that selectively dispenses outputs into vessels currently use in traditional benchtop biology would result in a more efficient method for performing analysis.
Our ProjectOur project, Terra, aims to create an automated system that bridges benchtop biology and microfluidics. Terra is comprised of three main components:
1. Microfluidics: A microfluidic chip designed to execute a desired biological experiment.
2. Hardware: A low-cost, accessible active XY-plane selectively dispenses the output of the microfluidic chip to a 96-well plate and automated control syringes.
3. Software: A software interface that will allow the user to detail the parameters of the experiment run on the chip; the specific location per output on the 96-well plate; and the amount of each output dispensed.
Terra is designed to automate synthetic biology experiments run on microfluidic chips and the dispensing of the products. To utilize our system, the synthetic biologist would briefly educate themselves on microfluidic chip design or choose a predesigned chip from the 2017 BostonU Hardware team, MARS’, repository. The biologist would then fabricate and assemble the chip and connect the chip to Terra’s hardware components. They would input the parameters of the experiment to the Terra’s software interface and execute the experiment using our automated system. The outputs of the experiment would be selectively dispensed from the microfluidic chip to the 96-well plate, ready for analysis.
This system creates an interface between traditional benchtop biology and microfluidics and removes some menial work, like pipetting, from standard benchtop experiments. This would benefit the field by granting biologists more time to focus on the underlying science and experiment design behind their research.
As a proof-of-concept, Terra aims to express lacZ in a cell-free system within a microfluidic chip, which produces 𝛽-galactosidase. When this enzyme is combined with certain substrates, they produce colorimetric results, allowing us to easily verify the validity of the experiment. This system will then be selectively dispensed via the active XY-plane according to the input to the software interface.