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Technological Developments in Microfluidics – Andrew deMello

Andrew deMello is Professor of Biochemical Engineering in the Department of Chemistry & Applied Biosciences at ETH Zürich. We caught up with him at the 3rd Microfluidics Congress: Europe, where he gave us an insight into his current research at ETH Zürich.

Current Research

Our group at ETH Zürich is very much focused on developing microfluidic technologies that improve the way we do chemistry and biology. We’re interested in a range of technologies and applications. For example:

  • We create millions of droplets using simple microfluidic devices and load them with different chemicals and/or organisms. We then put these organisms into the drop and do many experiments because that way, we improve information and systems.
  • We also spend a lot of time using microfluidic tools to make new types of nanomaterials for healthcare, photovoltaic and display applications.
  • We are also interested in understanding the process of ageing and for this we use tiny model organisms. For example, we have developed microfluidic tools to process and image elegans nematodes worms, with a view to isolating individuals which live for extended periods of time.
  • Finally, we have a long-standing interest in single cell measurements and developing methods which allow the analysis of large numbers of individual cells in very short periods of time.

Although we have a range of interests in both technologies and applications, droplet-based microfluidics is perhaps the most important focus for the group at the current time.

Best Bits

The greatest part of my job is seeing people use the technologies or the methods that we’ve developed. This shows that the investment in time, money and the right people can change the way chemists and biologists think about addressing problems.

It is also incredibly fulfilling when you do something that no one has ever done before. For example, we recently reported a new technique for imaging flow cytometry. By combining simple microfluidics with smart detection, we are now able to image 50,000 cells per second. We hope that this method will change the way that people start thinking about assaying cellular populations.

The Future of Microfluidics

In terms of big breakthroughs in microfluidics, it is very difficult to predict what will happen next, since we are only just beginning to see the real impact of microfluidic technology in biology. But at a very simple level, I think microfluidics becomes successful when the biologist or chemist views microfluidic technologies as uninteresting tools that simply allow them to do the experiments they want to do (just like a test tube, rotary evaporator or pipette).

There will certainly continue to be exciting technological developments within the field, but I think the most important breakthroughs will be related to the new science uncovered using microfluidics tools; for example, imagine the discovery of new ageing-related human genes!

 

Professor Andrew deMello is the Head of the Institute for Chemical and Bioengineering at ETH Zürich. Take a look at his research with ETH Zürich here.

 

It’s not too late to watch Professor George Whitesides presentation on ‘Microfluidics: Where From Here?‘.

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