Digital PCR (dPCR)

The science of microfluidic flow control for droplet digital PCR (ddPCR)

During the last decade digital-PCR (dPCR) has become one of the most prominent assays for this class of analytical methods dPCR carries out a single reaction within a sample as standard PCR, however, the sample is separated into a large number of partitions, and the reaction is carried out in each partition individually. This separation allows for more reliable collection and sensitive measurement of nucleic acid amounts. It has already been demonstrated that microfluidic dPCR offers a new level of precision compared to quantitative PCR (qPCR)76. Droplet-based microfluidic is an excellent solution to partition a sample. dPCR technology that makes use of droplet microfluidics is usually called droplet digital PCR (ddPCR). For performing the assay, the sample volume is split into multiple droplets in such a way that each droplet contains either one or none of the target DNA molecules. Due to the small droplet volume, the PCR reaction runs very efficiently even from a single molecule. During amplification, a fluorescent dye is formed or activated. The positive droplets become fluorescent. Absolute quantitation of the number of target molecules is simplified to the count of fluorescence active droplets in the generated droplet collection. ddPCR is an excellent example of a transition of a microfluidic system from the academic field to industry.
Main benefits
  • Higher accuracy
  • Higher sensitivity
  • Absolute quantitation

Main applications

Liquid biopsy

Liquid biopsies are non-invasive tests performed on a blood sample to detect cancer cells circulating in the blood (circulating tumor cells, CTCs) or pieces of DNA from tumor cells in the blood. This technique is increasingly used for cancer detection and monitoring, as they are low risk for the patient and help doctors understand what kind of molecular changes are taking place in the tumor

Copy number variation

A key measurement challenge in diagnostic research involves identifying small changes in nucleic acid sequence that are commonly associated with genetic diseases76. Changes in the genomic DNA leading to an abnormal copy of a DNA sequence are called copy number variations (CNVs). They are involved in many complex diseases such as Down’s syndrome, and many cancers.

Pathogen Detection and Microbiome Analysis

Microbiology is one of the fields where digital PCR is extensively used. In fact, detection of low-level pathogens is important in situations where viruses or bacteria can cause human diseases. As digital PCR shows higher sensitivity compared to standard PCR, and the ability to amplify low concentration targets even in complex backgrounds, it is a technology of choice for microbiome analysis.

Importance of fluid handling for droplet digital PCR application

Droplet digital PCR relies on random distribution of dPCR mix containing target molecules on the partition of equivalent volumes (here, the droplets). In this way, some partitions contain no target molecules while the remaining partitions contain at least one molecule. Partitions are next categorized and counted as positive or negative depending on their fluorescence intensity. The calculations are derived from a Poisson model, which can be impacted by partition volume since the model assumes the partition to be monodisperse. As a consequence, a heterogeneous droplet population can affect the dPCR process. In fact, several groups demonstrated through different studies that partition droplet volume variability can cause a bias on the accuracy of the measurements.

More information can be found on the paper written by Emslie et al.: Droplet Volume Variability and Impact on Digital PCR Copy Number Concentration Measurements The impact of flow rate on droplet size using a microfluidic system is today well described in the literature. Thus, to avoid heterogeneous droplet populations, one should consider using a precise flow controller.

Flow control systems for digital PCR

Flow rate stability is thus critical for having repeatable reactor volumes and reproducible results. Syringe pumps are commonly used for generating droplets. Depending on the model in use, syringe pumps show limited flow control. As a consequence, the droplet size, proportional to the flow rate, is affected. In addition, the actual flow rate cannot be monitored with such devices. The flow rate value is displayed on the device, but no information on the time required for reaching a set flow rate is given (the time for flow equilibrium may vary depending on the microfluidic setup, and flow can oscillate depending on the instrument). An alternative to syringe pumps is pressure-based flow controllers. These show high-precision flow control, fast reaction time, and flow monitoring are possible.

We compared the production of water-in-oil emulsions using microfluidic syringe pumps and pressure-based flow controllers. Using pressure control, the desired droplet size is quickly obtained (< 6 s), and monodisperse droplet generation is ensured over time

The benefits of choosing Fluigent for your flow droplet digital PCR system

  • Best in class stability: < 0.5% thanks to our field-proven, patented FASTAB™  technology allowing optimal flow control with the robustness required in demanding industrial environments.
  • Workflow automation becomes straightforward thanks to the included Fluigent software
  • Our engineering team are experts in microfluidic design, mechanical and software integration in addition to biology and application knowledge, which makes up a very versatile and capable team

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