Highly permeable silicon membranes for shear free chemotaxis and rapid cell labeling
Microfluidic systems are powerful tools for cell biology studies because they enable the precise addition and removal of solutes in small volumes. However, the fluid forces inherent in the use of microfluidics for cell cultures are sometimes undesirable. An important example is chemotaxis systems where fluid flow creates well-defined and steady chemotactic gradients but also pushes cells downstream. Here we demonstrate a chemotaxis system in which two chambers are separated by a molecularly thin (15 nm), transparent, and nanoporous silicon membrane. One chamber is a microfluidic channel that carries a flow-generated gradient while the other chamber is a shear-free environment for cell observation. The molecularly thin membranes provide effectively no resistance to molecular diffusion between the two chambers, making them ideal elements for creating flow-free chambers in microfluidic systems. Analytical and computational flow models that account for membrane and chamber geometry, predict shear reduction of more than five orders of magnitude. This prediction is confirmed by observing the pure diffusion of nanoparticles in the cell-hosting chamber despite high input flow (Q = 10 μL min−1; vavg ~ 45 mm min−1) in the flow chamber only 15 nm away. Using total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy, we show that a flow-generated molecular gradient will pass through the membrane into the quiescent cell chamber. Finally we demonstrate that our device allows us to expose migrating neutrophils to a chemotactic gradient or fluorescent label without any influence from flow.