Digital Assays Part II: Digital Protein And Cell Assays
Amar S. Basu
A digital assay is one in which the sample is partitioned into many containers such that each partition contains a discrete number of biological entities (0, 1, 2, 3, . . .). A powerful technique in the biologist’s toolkit, digital assays bring a new level of precision in quantifying nucleic acids, measuring proteins and their enzymatic activity, and probing single-cell genotype and phenotype. Where part I of this review focused on the fundamentals of partitioning and digital PCR, part II turns its attention to digital protein and cell assays. Digital enzyme assays measure the kinetics of single proteins with enzymatic activity. Digital enzyme-linked immunoassays (ELISAs) quantify antigenic proteins with 2 to 3 log lower detection limit than conventional ELISA, making them well suited for low-abundance biomarkers. Digital cell assays probe single-cell genotype and phenotype, including gene expression, intracellular and surface proteins, metabolic activity, cytotoxicity, and transcriptomes (scRNA-seq). These methods exploit partitioning to 1) isolate single cells or proteins, 2) detect their activity via enzymatic amplification, and 3) tag them individually by coencapsulating them with molecular barcodes. When scaled, digital assays reveal stochastic differences between proteins or cells within a population, a key to understanding biological heterogeneity. This review is intended to give a broad perspective to scientists interested in adopting digital assays into their workflows.
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