Cross-talk between emulsion drops: how are hydrophilic reagents transported across oil phases?
Emulsion drops are frequently used as vessels, for example, to conduct biochemical reactions in small volumes or to perform screening assays at high throughputs while consuming minimal sample volumes. These applications typically require drops that do not allow exchange of reagents such that no cross-contamination occurs. Unfortunately, in many cases, reagents are exchanged between emulsion drops even if they have a low solubility in the surrounding phase, resulting in cross-contaminations. Here, we investigate the mechanism by which hydrophilic reagents are transported across an oil phase using water–oil–water double emulsion drops as a model system. Remarkably, even large objects, including 11 000 base pair double-stranded circular DNA are transported across oil shells. Importantly, this reagent transport, that is to a large extent caused by aqueous drops that spontaneously form at the water–oil interface, is not limited to double emulsions but also occurs between single emulsion drops. We demonstrate that the uncontrolled reagent transport can be decreased by at least an order of magnitude if appropriate surfactants that lower the interfacial tension only moderately are employed or if the shell thickness of double emulsions is decreased to a few hundreds of nanometers.