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Microplate Technology for High-Throughput Applications

Microplate selection influences data quality

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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Today’s basic biology and clinical labs must produce high-quality data, and lots of it. This work often depends on the labware, such as microplates, which can be used to hold cells from sample preparation through data analysis. According to Betsy Moran, PhD, life science technology platform leader at Revvity, “Microplates are key to high-throughput data acquisition.” In today’s market, though, there are many microplates to consider.

For example, “filter plates provide an ideal method to purify proteins or isolate nucleic acids, such as DNA, RNA, or oligonucleotides for use in critical downstream applications, including next-generation sequencing,” says Brad Larson, product marketing manager, microplates, cell analysis division at Agilent Technologies. In all applications of microplates, though, a range of features can impact  results.

A catalogue of characteristics

Scientists can select from a wide range of microplate sizes and features. For instance, Moran points out that “high well densities allow for a higher volume of data points and thus more samples are assayed in a single experiment or screening run.” Alternatively, microplate technology with shallow wells can reduce the amount of reagents used in screening assays, making each data point less expensive, Moran notes.

In many cases, scientists use optical techniques to analyze cells in microplates. Here, says Larson, “the microplates have a significant impact on the quality of data generated, particularly when high-magnification or confocal microscopy is required to see subcellular structures or protein expression.” In such applications, everything about the microplates—from well-bottom thickness and flatness through optical quality of the microplate’s material—“can mean the difference between clear images that important downstream decisions can be based upon, and blurry images that cause experiments to be repeated, costing time and money,” Larson explains.

Today’s microplates must also accommodate the format of cultured cells, such as the ongoing transition from growing sheets of cells to three-dimensional cultures. “Newer plate technologies have made it possible to both create and analyze 3D samples in the same well, thereby increasing the robustness of generated data,” Larson says. 

Picking the right microplates

The wide variety of microplates available makes it challenging to select the best ones for a particular application. The search usually begins with some general questions. “Does the answer to the research question reside in an intact cell or in a biochemical reaction?” Moran asks. “Microplates are available for both cell-based assays and for biochemical assays.” After making that decision, the best microplate depends on the specific application.

“A single experimental workflow can include multiple steps, as well as a variety of different labware,” Larson says. “Making the correct decision as to which microplate or reservoir to incorporate for each step can go a long way towards determining the experiment’s ultimate success.”

For each step in a workflow, many features of the microplate matter. Those features range from throughput and plate material through plate treatments and performance. The microplate-selection process includes too many steps and decisions to describe them all here. To go through the selection process in depth, see this overview by Jayme Dahlin, MD, PhD, senior scientist at Agios Pharmaceuticals, and his colleagues.

Wandering through today’s maze of microplates takes some effort, but the best choice could ultimately save a scientist time and improve the resulting data.