Fluorosurfactant-stabilized microfluidic droplets are widely used as pico- to nanoliter volume reactors in chemistry and biology. However, current surfactants cannot completely prevent inter-droplet transfer of small organic molecules encapsulated or produced inside the droplets. In addition, the microdroplets typically coalesce at temperatures higher than 80 °C. Therefore, the use of droplet-based platforms for ultrahigh-throughput combination drug screening and polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based rare mutation detection has been limited. Here, we provide insights into designing surfactants that form robust microdroplets with improved stability and resistance to inter-droplet transfer. We used a panel of dendritic oligo-glycerol-based surfactants to demonstrate that a high degree of inter- and intramolecular hydrogen bonding, as well as the dendritic architecture, contribute to high droplet stability in PCR thermal cycling and minimize inter-droplet transfer of the water-soluble fluorescent dye sodium fluorescein salt and the drug doxycycline.
Creating a single surfactant that is open to manipulation, while maintaining its surface activity, robustness, and compatibility, to expand the landscape of surfactant-dependent assays is extremely challenging. We report an oxidation-responsive precursor with thioethers and multiple 1,2-diols for creating a variety of functional surfactants from one parent surfactant. Using these multifunctional surfactants, we stabilize microfluidics-generated aqueous droplets. The droplets encapsulate different components and immerse in a bioinert oil with distinct interfaces where an azide-bearing surfactant allow fishing of biomolecules from the droplets, aldehyde-bearing surfactant allow fabrication of microcapsules, and hydroxyl-bearing surfactants, with/without oxidized thioethers, allow monitoring of single-cell gene expression. Creating multifunctional surfactants poses opportunities for broad applications, including adsorption, bioanalytics, catalysis, formulations, coatings, and programmable subset of emulsions.