Forward genetic screening via mutagenesis is a powerful method for identifying regulatory factors in target pathways in model organisms such as the soil-dwelling free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). Currently manual microscopy is the standard technique for conducting such screens; however, it is labor-intensive and time-consuming because screening requires imaging thousands of animals. Recently microfluidic chips have been developed to increase the throughput of some of such experiments; nonetheless, most of these chips are multilayer devices and complicated to fabricate and therefore prone to failure during fabrication and operation. In addition, most sorting decisions are made manually and the criteria used for sorting are subjective. To overcome these limitations, we developed a simple single-layer microfluidic device and an adaptive algorithm to make sorting decisions. The one-layer device greatly improves the reliability, while quantitative analysis with the adaptive algorithm allows for the identification of mutations that generate subtle changes in expression, which would have been hard to detect by eye. The screening criterion is set based on the mutagenized population, not separate control populations measured prior to actual screening experiments, to account for stochasticity and day-to-day variations of gene expression in mutagenized worms. Moreover, during each experiment, the threshold is constantly updated to reflect the balance between maximizing sorting rate and minimizing false-positive rate. Using this system, we screened for mutants that have altered expression levels of tryptophan hydroxylase, a key enzyme for serotonin synthesis in a CaMKII gain-of-function background. We found several putative mutants in this screen. Furthermore, this microfluidic system and quantitative analysis can be easily adapted to study other pathways in C. elegans.
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