Rapid PCR thermocycling using microscale thermal convection.
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Many molecular biology assays depend in some way on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify an initially dilute target DNA sample to a detectable concentration level. But the design of conventional PCR thermocycling hardware, predominantly based on massive metal heating blocks whose temperature is regulated by thermoelectric heaters, severely limits the achievable reaction speed(1). Considerable electrical power is also required to repeatedly heat and cool the reagent mixture, limiting the ability to deploy these instruments in a portable format. Thermal convection has emerged as a promising alternative thermocycling approach that has the potential to overcome these limitations(2-9). Convective flows are an everyday occurrence in a diverse array of settings ranging from the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and interior, to decorative and colorful lava lamps. Fluid motion is initiated in the same way in each case: a buoyancy driven instability arises when a confined volume of fluid is subjected to a spatial temperature gradient. These same phenomena offer an attractive way to perform PCR thermocycling. By applying a static temperature gradient across an appropriately designed reactor geometry, a continuous circulatory flow can be established that will repeatedly transport PCR reagents through temperature zones associated with the denaturing, annealing, and extension stages of the reaction (Figure 1). Thermocycling can therefore be actuated in a pseudo-isothermal manner by simply holding two opposing surfaces at fixed temperatures, completely eliminating the need to repeatedly heat and cool the instrument. One of the main challenges facing design of convective thermocyclers is the need to precisely control the spatial velocity and temperature distributions within the reactor to ensure that the reagents sequentially occupy the correct temperature zones for a sufficient period of time(10,11). Here we describe results of our efforts to probe the full 3-D velocity and temperature distributions in microscale convective thermocyclers(12). Unexpectedly, we have discovered a subset of complex flow trajectories that are highly favorable for PCR due to a synergistic combination of (1) continuous exchange among flow paths that provides an enhanced opportunity for reagents to sample the full range of optimal temperature profiles, and (2) increased time spent within the extension temperature zone the rate limiting step of PCR. Extremely rapid DNA amplification times (under 10 min) are achievable in reactors designed to generate these flows.