Microfluidic systems for high-throughput and high-content screening using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans.

Matteo Cornaglia, Thomas Lehnert, Martin Gijs

Lab on a chip



In a typical high-throughput drug screening (HTS) process, up to millions of chemical compounds are applied to cells cultured in well plates, aiming to find molecules that exhibit a robust dose-response, as evidenced for example by a fluorescence signal. In high-content screening (HCS), one goes a step further by linking the tested compounds to phenotypic information, obtained, for instance, from microscopic cell images, thereby creating richer data sets that also require more advanced analysis methods. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans came into the screening picture due to the wide availability of its mutants and human disease models, its relatively easy culture and short life cycle. Being a whole-organism model, it allows drug testing under physiological conditions at multi-tissue levels and provides additional observable phenotypes with respect to cell models, related, for instance, to development, aging, behavior or motility. Worm-based HTS studies in liquid environments on microwell plates have been demonstrated, while microfluidic devices allowed surpassing the performance of plates by enabling more versatile and accurate assays, precise and dynamic dosing of compounds, and readouts down to single-animal resolution. In this review, we discuss microfluidic devices for C. elegans analysis and related studies, published in the period from 2012 to 2017. After an introduction to the different screening approaches, we first focus on microfluidic systems with potential for screening applications. Various enabling technologies, e.g. electrophysiological on-chip recordings or laser axotomy, have been implemented, as well as techniques for reversible worm immobilization and high-resolution imaging, combined with algorithms for automated experimentation and analysis. Several devices for developmental or behavioral assays, and worm sorting based on different phenotypes, have been proposed too. In a subsequent section, we review the application of microfluidic-based systems for medium- and high-throughput screens, including neurobiology and neurodegeneration studies, aging and developmental assays, toxicity and pathogenesis screens, as well as behavioral and motility assays. A thorough analysis of this work reveals a trend towards microfluidic systems more and more capable of offering high-quality analyses of large worm populations, based on multi-phenotypic and/or longitudinal readouts, with clear potential for their application in larger HTS/HCS contexts.