Team:BostonU HW/Description


Bronze Medal


Overview and Introduction

Microfluidics is a scientific field that exists at the intersection of the fields of engineering, physics, chemistry and biotechnology. It deals with the manipulation of microliter volumes of liquids which are processed on devices called microfluidic chips. As a result, microfluidics allows complex protocols and procedures to be performed on chips. There are a variety of different types of microfluidic chips in existence. For example, digital, paper and centrifugal microfluidic chips are all in use today. MARS focuses on continuous flow microfluidics fabricated from polycarbonate and PDMS.

Currently, members of the synthetic biology community are equally, if not more, occupied with running their experiments than thinking about new innovative ideas. The implementation of microfluidics devices are one of the possible solutions to this problem. The main benefits of using microfluidics are that they are automated and efficient. Since microfluidics devices operate on such a small scale each experiment can yield high throughput data, all while reducing the cost of expensive reagents. Addtionally, they are run using programmable hardware, meaning researchers can acquire consistent data each time an experiment is run. So these points bring about a very important question; Why are microfluidics not being utilized in every synthetic biology experiment?

Problem Statement

If a synthetic biologist would like to use microfluidics in their lab, they would follow the traditional design and manufacture workflow. This consists of three general stages divided into:

  1. Design
  2. Manufacture
  3. Implementation

Designing, manufacturing and using a microfluidic device requires significant knowledge investment in topics such as the basics of fluid dynamics and specialized software such Adobe Illustrator. If a synthetic biologist does not want to design their own chip, they can search through published literature. However, these devices are often highly specialized and not useful for the average synbio researcher. After either designing their own chip, or selecting a published microfluidic, they would begin the time consuming process of designing and modeling their chip using Comsol. Once the design is finalized, they can move on to the manufacturing stage of the workflow. Most microfluidic fabrications methods, such as soft lithography, require a high initial startup cost, technical agility, time investment and more educational investment to learn how to correctly manufacture the chips.

After manufacturing their device, the synthetic biologist can then move onto implementation and testing. However, there are many difficulties that may arise when testing a device. For example, certain chips may require some external apparatus, such as off-chip metering or electronic components. These can vary from design to design, adding additional costs and time investment in learn how to use them.

Even after investing time and money into this microfluidics workflow, success is not guaranteed. The process may need to be repeated dozens of times to get a fully functional microfluidic chip.

These difficulties with replicating and testing microfluidic devices was experienced first-hand by the BostonU HW Team. While replicating chips from journal articles, similarly to our synthetic biologist, we noted three repeated issues:

  1. Lack of thorough documentation of experimental procedures
  2. High level of design specificity and a lack accessibility of design files
  3. Lack of standard evaluation system to grade devices against

As a result, the final chip manufactured cannot be run correctly due to lack of protocol documentation. Additionally, it is not possible to use a quantitative system of evaluation to ensure the device is working as intended. We have classified these limitations as barriers in the “implementation” stage of the microfluidics workflow.

Our Project

The CIDAR Lab at Boston University has tackled many of these design and manufacture shortcomings with an easy to use software workflow, including last year's iGEM Hardware project Neptune, and a low-cost rapid prototyping manufacturing system Makerfluidics. However, this system does not address the barriers we had identified under “Implementation” which limits the accessibility of microfluidics to everyday synthetic biology labs.

This year’s iGEM Team, decided to focus on removing these barriers in the implementation stage of the workflow which led to the creation of our project MARS (Microfluidic Applications for Research in Synbio).

MARS aims to increase the accessibility and relevance of microfluidics to synthetic biology through three defined goals:

  1. Increase the ease of access of microfluidics to synbiologists
  2. Design chips relevant for day to day use in synthetic biology
  3. Create a standardized method of evaluating chip functionality

These goals have been built on and expanded to create the three branches of MARS which are:

Explore our Wiki to understand more about each of these branches!