Protein engineering—the process of developing useful or valuable proteins—has successfully created a wide range of proteins tailored to specific agricultural, industrial, and biomedical applications. Protein engineering may rely on rational techniques informed by structural models, phylogenic information, or computational methods or it may rely upon random techniques such as chemical mutation, DNA shuffling, error prone polymerase chain reaction (PCR), etc. The increasing capabilities of rational protein design coupled to the rapid production of large variant libraries have seriously challenged the capacity of traditional screening and selection techniques. Similarly, random approaches based on directed evolution, which relies on the Darwinian principles of mutation and selection to steer proteins toward desired traits, also requires the screening of very large libraries of mutants to be truly effective. For either rational or random approaches, the highest possible screening throughput facilitates efficient protein engineering strategies. In the last decade, high-throughput screening (HTS) for protein engineering has been leveraging the emerging technologies of droplet microfluidics. Droplet microfluidics, featuring controlled formation and manipulation of nano- to femtoliter droplets of one fluid phase in another, has presented a new paradigm for screening, providing increased throughput, reduced reagent volume, and scalability. We review here the recent droplet microfluidics-based HTS systems developed for protein engineering, particularly directed evolution. The current review can also serve as a tutorial guide for protein engineers and molecular biologists who need a droplet microfluidics-based HTS system for their specific applications but may not have prior knowledge about microfluidics. In the end, several challenges and opportunities are identified to motivate the continued innovation of microfluidics with implications for protein engineering.
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