Old-school electrical engineers—and plenty of older research scientists, even biologists like me—remember the days of building circuits from parts: capacitors, resistors, and transistors. The creation of integrated circuits transformed electrical engineering and computer architecture. Microfluidics provide a similar opportunity for bioprocessors, especially in the development of new methods of biomanufacturing.

Microfluidic devices come with many benefits, including quickly testing many variables while using low levels of reagents. Still, Maria Raquel Aires-Barros, PhD, professor at the Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences at the University of Lisbon and her colleagues reported: “While being able to expedite a bioprocess design, the modular aspect of these microfluidic devices has not been systematically explored, with most applications focusing on single unitary operations.” Instead, Aires-Barros and her colleagues want to apply integrated microfluidic devices to continuous bioprocessing.

Although Aires-Barros’ team carefully pointed out many studies that used microfluidics for specific steps in bioprocessing, the real key is putting them all together. As a proof of concept, these scientists developed an integrated microfluidic device that includes a microbioreactor where recombinant E. coli produce green fluorescent protein (GFP), a cell-lysing portion that releases the protein, and an aqueous two-phase extraction system. “In this way, it is possible to screen multiple conditions for each operation and evaluate their combined effect on the final product,” Aires-Barros and her colleagues noted.

To show that such an integrated microfluidics device can do the job in bioprocessing, Aires-Barros and her colleagues ran the device for eight days. Fluorescent monitoring of GFP showed consistent production over the test period. To maximize production, this device also simplifies the optimization of many parameters, from the flow rate of the cell medium to purifying the product.

Integrating effect

“By combining multiple unit operations in a single device, it would be possible to screen not only for the optimal conditions for each operation, but to account for the combined effect of each on the overall process,” Aires-Barros and her colleagues concluded. “In this way, the microfluidic device can deliver a rapid process screening and optimization, with very low reagent consumption, and using a simple fluorescence microscope for data collection.”

Maybe microfluidic devices like this will bring bioprocessing the kind of performance improvements that integrated circuits delivered to computing—from the first programmable computer’s 500 floating point operations per second (FLOPS) to the million trillion FLOPS of today’s fastest computers. Much like the computing pioneers might not have imagined how integrated circuits would change computing, the same might be said for integrating bioprocessing. Only time will tell if a similar transition lies ahead for biomanufacturing.

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