“Micro-factories” for rapid development of high-value biochemicals

Hundreds of water and oil droplets 

A fluidic microchip is shown where droplets are first generated by merging controlled quantities of reaction agents such as DNA and proteins, then fused and mixed, reacted as they are transported along a delay line, and then analysed for the presence of specific compounds. The droplets containing the target enzymes are selected by an in-line detector and “switched” to their final destination

OpdA – an enzyme produced using the CSIRO microchip technology

March 2015

Internationally the race is on to discover new enzymes and other biomolecules with valuable properties such as pharmaceuticals. Vast ‘libraries’ of candidate genes and enzyme variant combinations need to be produced, screened and selected against many different potential targets. Discovery might require millions, or even billions, of reaction combinations to make a valuable strike.

CSIRO is working at the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication, ANFF’s headquarters and flagship facility in the Manufacturing heartland of Victoria, to create a new microchip technology to give Australian industry tools for success in this race. Just as electronic microchips revolutionised our economy, fluidic microchips are set to transform a whole range of industries, from “tricorders” that put a pathology laboratory in a doctor’s hand, to micro-factories to produce the next generation of pharmaceuticals or industrial catalysts.

Led by Dr Yonggang Zhu, a Senior Technology Fellow at MCN, the CSIRO team is building fluidic microchips that create “micro-reactors” out of tiny droplets of reaction components surrounded by special oils that contain and transport these chemical and biological processes. These tiny droplets are a few microns across, containing only picolitres of fluid that can mimic the physical and chemical conditions inside natural biological cells for controlled reactions.

They are created by sequentially merging water in oil droplets, inserting exactly measured tiny amounts of the specific chemical and biological reagents, mixing and incubating with real-time control of reaction times and conditions, performing in-situ analysis using a variety of micro-fabricated optical and electronic assays, and transporting selected droplets at high speed to final destinations based on the real-time analysis results. All within a plastic microchip a few centimeters long that can be mass produced in the ANFF MCN laboratories.