Using droplet-based microfluidics to improve the catalytic properties of RNA under multiple-turnover conditions

RNA. 2015 Mar;21(3):458-69. doi: 10.1261/rna.048033.114. Epub 2015 Jan 20.


In vitro evolution methodologies are powerful approaches to identify RNA with new functionalities. While Systematic Evolution of Ligands by Exponential enrichment (SELEX) is an efficient approach to generate new RNA aptamers, it is less suited for the isolation of efficient ribozymes as it does not select directly for the catalysis. In vitro compartmentalization (IVC) in aqueous droplets in emulsions allows catalytic RNAs to be selected under multiple-turnover conditions but suffers severe limitations that can be overcome using the droplet-based microfluidics workflow described in this paper. Using microfluidics, millions of genes in a library can be individually compartmentalized in highly monodisperse aqueous droplets and serial operations performed on them. This allows the different steps of the evolution process (gene amplification, transcription, and phenotypic assay) to be uncoupled, making the method highly flexible, applicable to the selection and evolution of a variety of RNAs, and easily adaptable for evolution of DNA or proteins. To demonstrate the method, we performed cycles of random mutagenesis and selection to evolve the X-motif, a ribozyme which, like many ribozymes selected using SELEX, has limited multiple-turnover activity. This led to the selection of variants, likely to be the optimal ribozymes that can be generated using point mutagenesis alone, with a turnover number under multiple-turnover conditions, k(ss) cat, ∼ 28-fold higher than the original X-motif, primarily due to an increase in the rate of product release, the rate-limiting step in the multiple-turnover reaction.

Keywords: RNA; droplet-based microfluidics; high-throughput screening; in vitro evolution; ribozymes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aptamers, Nucleotide / genetics*
  • DNA / genetics
  • Directed Molecular Evolution*
  • Microfluidics
  • RNA, Catalytic / genetics*
  • RNA, Catalytic / isolation & purification
  • SELEX Aptamer Technique


  • Aptamers, Nucleotide
  • RNA, Catalytic
  • DNA