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Controlling molecular transport in minimal emulsions

P. Gruner et al. Nature Communication, 7, 10392 (2016) ; Open Access

article published on Nature Communications

Droplet-based microfluidics is the key technology for the miniaturization and automation of assays in controlled microcompartments. It relies on the use of emulsion droplets as microreactors each encapsulating a biological system of interest (genes, cells, drugs,...) which can be analysed at a ultra-high throughput. However, emulsions are metastable dispersions in which molecular transport is a major mechanism driving the system towards its state of minimal energy. In practice, such a molecular transport leads to the breakdown of the compartmentalization principle. Determining the underlying mechanisms of molecular transport between droplets is therefore essential. It is however in general challenging due to the complexity of a typical emulsion system. Here we introduce the concept of ‘minimal emulsions’, which are controlled emulsions produced using microfluidic tools, simplifying an emulsion down to its minimal set of relevant parameters. We use these minimal emulsions to unravel the fundamentals of transport of small organic molecules in water-in-fluorinated-oil emulsions, a system of great interest for biotechnological applications. Our results are of practical relevance to guarantee a sustainable compartmentalization of compounds in droplet microreactors and to design new strategies for the dynamic control of droplet compositions. They also lead to new means to actively control the transport of molecules from the interior of the droplets to its exterior, which is a key elementary for the build up of a new generation of cell-like microcompartments, opening the door to chemical programming in soft matter systems.

See also :
JC Baret et al. Lab Chip (2012)
Gruner et al. Soft Matter (2012),
Gruner et al. Current Opinion on Colloids and Interface Science (2015)

J.-C.B. acknowledges the financial support by the SFB-755 Nanoscale Photonic Imaging, the ERC (FP7/2007-2013 /ERC Grant agreement 306385–SofI), the IdEx Bordeaux and the ‘Région Aquitaine’. B.R. acknowledges the IMPRS for Physics of Biology and Complex Systems for financing her fellowship. A.J and K.S. acknowledge the support by the IAESTE. P.G. and B.R. acknowledge additional support from the GGNB doctoral school.

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