Graduate Program in Biomedical Engineering, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Droplet microfluidics enables cellular encapsulation for biomedical applications such as single-cell analysis, which is an important tool used by biologists to study cells on a single-cell level, and understand cellular heterogeneity in cell populations. However, most cell encapsulation strategies in microfluidics rely on random encapsulation processes, resulting in large numbers of empty droplets. Therefore, post-sorting of droplets is necessary to obtain samples of purely cell-encapsulating droplets. With the recent advent of aqueous two-phase systems (ATPS) as a biocompatible alternative of the conventional water-in-oil droplet systems for cellular encapsulation, there has also been a focus on integrating ATPS with droplet microfluidics. In this paper, we describe a new technique that combines ATPS-based water-in-water droplets with diamagnetic manipulation to isolate single-cell encapsulating water-in-water droplets, and achieve a purity of 100% in a single pass. We exploit the selective partitioning of ferrofluid in an ATPS of polyethylene glycol-polypropylene glycol-polyethylene glycol triblock copolymer (PEG-PPG-PEG) and dextran (DEX), to achieve diamagnetic manipulation of water-in-water droplets. A cell-triggered Rayleigh-Plateau instability in the dispersed phase thread results in a size distinction between the cell-encapsulating and empty droplets, enabling diamagnetic separation and sorting of the cell-encapsulating droplets from empty droplets. This is a simple and biocompatible all-aqueous platform for single-cell encapsulation and droplet manipulation, with applications in single-cell analysis.