2020 vision: celebrating the 20th year of Lab on a Chip

Abraham P. Lee abc
aSamueli School of Engineering, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA. E-mail: aplee@uci.edu
bSamueli School of Engineering, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA
cCenter for Advanced Design and Manufacturing of Integrated Microfluidics (CADMIM), University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

Hello from “inside” of the Lab on a Chip journal! It is during this unprecedented and turbulent time of the COVID-19 pandemic that I reflect on the history of our journal that many of us “grew up” with. Today some may view Lab on a Chip as merely one of the myriad of journals that have emerged over the last decade, not knowing that this is where it pretty much all started. In fact, the first issue of Lab on a Chip was published on January 1, 2001. In the very first Editorial, founding Editor-in-Chief Andreas Manz and Managing Editor Harp Minhas discussed the origins of the field tracing it back to the visionary 1959 talk of Richard Feynman entitled “There is plenty of room at the bottom”.1 Miniaturization and the associated scaled-down physics was the key that would open up many doors in chemical and biological applications. Feynman discussed the potential to store the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin. He also dove into the central dogma of biology, asking how DNA stores the enormous amounts of information in the nucleus, the implications of a single base-pair mutation, and how DNA is connected to the order of the amino acids in the protein. He also touched on chemical processes and how miniaturization facilitates not only analysis but also synthesis of chemical substances. He posed the question, is there a physical way to synthesize chemical substance? What is intriguing is that Feynman implied biomimicry, using the biological cell as an example that it is possible to synthesize/manufacture substance, move around (transport), store information all at the very small scale.

Now six decades since that defining Feynman talk, the vision still rings true and many of Feynman's visions are becoming reality and questions are being answered. Amazingly we are still very much on the journey to the “plenty” at the “bottom”. We have decoded the entire genome but now we want to read it on demand and possibly encode tiny constructs to mimic the cell, and to make substances like the cell does. We mimic nature not only to learn how it does what it does but also to improvise and design new paradigms that help break barriers in fundamental chemical and biological processes, and ultimately connecting back to information storage and processing – where Feynman was first inspired to articulate his vision. There is truly “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”! This vision was crystallized by our first Editor-in-Chief Andreas Manz in his 1990 seminal paper discussing a Micro Total Chemical Analysis System that utilizes the unique properties of smaller channel dimensions for faster reactions and analyses.2 George Whitesides was the second Editor-in-Chief that stressed removing the barriers for users to access and use the tools being developed, resulting in the democratization of the field with simple fabrication processes and materials.

Here I would also like to bring to your attention the brilliancy of our founding Managing Editor Harp Minhas, who was keen on giving our journal the unorthodox name of “Lab on a Chip”. As far as mankind is concerned and history attests, a name is often much more than a title with some level of guiding and prophetic powers. The name Lab on a Chip implies the meeting of two very distinct entities, namely the “Lab” and the “Chip”. While this could be construed as limiting I'd rather think of it as empowering and enabling, as the journal is attempting to harness the power of miniaturization represented by the revolutionary engines of the “Chip” to carry out chemical and biological processes in the “Lab” at spatial and temporal resolutions that were previously not reachable. Per “Chip” gurus (e.g. Gordon Moore), the miniaturization is just one piece of a complex puzzle, the ability to integrate and scale-up is what truly realizes the Feynman vision. Much like the ability to split atoms or fuse hydrogen is what allows one to predict the potential of nuclear energy, it requires a Manhattan Project to build a complete system for the power to be unleashed. The next 20 years of Lab on a Chip should be the era of “scaling up” of miniaturized components and processes to enable large-scale applications and information processing with applications as diverse as medicine, materials, energy, and environmental/atmospheric sciences.

Back to the circumstance that most of us are hunkered down in our homes and figuring out how to combat this dreadful invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the community of Lab on a Chip is as relevant as ever. Our journal scope set in 2017 simply clarifies the mantle that we carry, and that is to be the journal that encapsulates the most novel technological advancements in miniaturization as well as the most significant applications enabled by miniaturization principles. The sweet spot of the journal are papers where novel technologies were developed to uniquely enable applications (chemical or biological based) where there were no obvious existing solutions. Back in 2001 when the journal was launched, there was still fertile ground for a larger percentage of novel technologies to be published in the journal without being connected to apparent applications. As the field has matured, we see a healthy distribution of novel technologies, novel ‘technology enabled applications’ and technology enabled novel applications in the journal. The latest data show approximately a 20-70-10 split and our review criteria has also reflected this trend.

For our friends that have been with us throughout the last two decades, I assure you that “There is Plenty of Room in the Applications”. We have mostly developed the ability to ‘read’ the ‘alphabet’, but now together we will ‘write’ the next chapter of the exciting Lab on a Chip encyclopaedia. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is a current case in point, where Lab on a Chip researchers are developing new assays for rapid point-of-care diagnostics, new physiological monitors, and new therapeutics to help stem the spread and flatten the curve. One could also take a look at the last few Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Medicine, and keenly observe that many of these pioneering fields have been fuelled by Lab on a Chip research advances. Examples include but are not limited to molecular machines (2016), immunotherapy (2018), synthetic biology (2018), and batteries (2019). I don't think we should be surprised if, in the near future, a Nobel Laureate comes from the ranks of Lab on a Chip authors!


Professor Abraham Lee, Editor-in-Chief


  1. R. P. Feynman, Eng. Sci., 1960, 23, 22 Search PubMed , http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/feynman.html.
  2. A. Manz, N. Graber and H. M. Widmer, Sens. Actuators, B, 1990, 1, 244–248 CrossRef CAS.

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