What is a Microplate Reader?

If you've ever seen a ray of sunlight bend or change color when it hits a glass of water on a table, you've seen the basic principle of a microplate reader at work. Although things get a lot more complicated than that, these valuable lab instruments measure how light interacts with specific substances in liquid.

You'll find microplate readers used in clinical and research environments, and they come in several different styles. They help with everything from evaluating enzyme reactions to detecting diseases in cells. In this intro to microplate readers, we dive further into these useful tools and how to find the right one for your lab.

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How Does a Microplate Reader Work?

A microplate reader, sometimes called a plate reader, measures how light interacts with a sample. It can detect biological, chemical and physical events that occur in the samples. Determining what a microplate reader measures depends on what mode it uses.

Typically, a microplate reader takes measurements in one of these three modes:

  • Absorbance: This measurement refers to how a substance absorbs light from a specific wavelength, typically created with a monochromator or a filter-based system. The microplate reader shines the light through the sample and measures how much light makes it to the other side. It can then determine how much was absorbed by the sample. Some readers can use ultraviolet light and visible light.
  • Fluorescence: A fluorescence measurement assesses how much light a substance emits after exposure to a fluorescent light source. The wavelength presented is slightly different from the light emitted by the sample, so the microplate reader can measure them separately.
  • Luminescence: Luminescence is similar to fluorescence, except it doesn't require a light source. Instead, the sample emits light due to a chemical or enzymatic reaction.

A multi-mode microplate reader can measure across all of these qualities, but a single-mode microplate reader can only measure one. Other specialized modes you might find in a microplate reader include fluorescence polarization and time-resolved fluorescence. 

One important part of this equation is the need for consistent sample sizes. Without the same amount of liquid in each well, the samples may interact differently with the light. To keep things equal, many scientists use automated liquid handling systems, which dispense fluids in accurate, precisely measured proportions.

What Is a Microplate Reader Used for?

Microplate readers are commonly used across research and clinical applications, but two prominent users include the biotech industry and clinical diagnostic teams.

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How Microplate Readers Contribute to Biotech Research

The biotech industry is no stranger to microplate readers, which can assess a wide range of events and behaviors. They support various applications in areas like:

  • Protein-protein interactions and binding assays
  • Enzyme assays
  • Drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics
  • Cell viability and cytotoxicity assays
  • Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs)
  • Gene expression and reporter assays
  • Microbial growth assays
  • DNA quantification and nucleic acid analysis

Recent advancements in areas like biomarker discovery and personalized medicine are especially reliant on microplate reading systems. With the ability to accurately measure a large number of samples in a short amount of time, microplate readers are helping biotech researchers efficiently collect diverse data points.

For example, the George Washington Institute for Neurosciences uses microplate readers to conduct qPCR assays. They use the instrument's capabilities to quickly measure expression levels for select genes from tissue samples and validate expression changes from microarray experiments.

With virtually limitless possibilities, the fast-paced biotech industry has made great strides thanks to microplate readers.

Microplate Readers in Clinical Diagnostics

In the medical setting, microplate readers are just as valuable, offering solutions in areas like:

  • Immunoassays, including ELISAs
  • Clinical chemistry
  • Hormone analysis
  • Serology and infectious disease testing
  • Molecular diagnostics

ELISA plate readers are particularly valuable in the clinical setting, where they can detect immunological markers like antibodies and antigens. As technology advances, some practices are turning to smaller and more portable systems to support in-field diagnostics. Microplate readers with compact footprints can also make it more viable for small clinics to use them for in-house analysis.

Clinicians depend on microplate readers for their accuracy and high levels of precision, and high-volume labs rely on high-throughput capabilities. Today's microplate readers present considerable opportunities for many clinical environments.

Selecting the Right Microplate Reader With New Life Scientific

If you want to pick the right instrument for your lab, you'll need to do a little investigating. Understanding your application's unique needs will help you find the ideal microplate reader with all the right features, sizing and capabilities.

Some things to consider when buying a microplate reader include:

  • The number of wells: Unsurprisingly, you might need a large number of wells if you work with a high volume of samples. Many microplate readers have 96 wells, but some can have over 1,000 wells.
  • Speed: Similarly, high-throughput operations may require microplate readers capable of running faster. Check the instrument's read times in different modes to make sure it can match your workflow.
  • Single-mode or multi-mode: If you only anticipate using your microplate reader for one type of readout — such as absorbance, fluorescence or luminance — you may only need a single-mode instrument. For more versatility and a compact build, consider a multi-mode microplate reader.
  • Automation support: Some microplate readers are primed to work with automated technologies, such as microplate handling systems and automated liquid handling systems. If automation sounds like it might be in your future, look for equipment that can accommodate it.
  • Included software: Microplate readers may run on proprietary software solutions from their manufacturers. Explore the potential software your microplate reader will need and whether it suits your application. If your microplate reader doesn't come with software, factor that cost into your budget.
  • Additional features: Consider whether you need features like auto-calibration, ready-to-use protocols or shaking and incubation.

At New Life Scientific, we offer a diverse selection of used microplate readers, all tested for quality and backed by our supportive team, who can help answer questions and provide product support after the sale. Most of our microplate readers are available immediately, so no long lead times will keep you from getting your work done. With clear, transparent listings, you can easily see what's what and find the right equipment for your lab.

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Explore Used Microplate Readers Today

The microplate reader is an extremely versatile tool that can find a home in many different labs. Whatever your work entails, high-quality used instruments can help you get the right tools at the right prices. Our vast catalog and knowledgeable representatives make the process even simpler.

With a 120-day warranty on every instrument and equipment servicing solutions, we offer tools you can rely on. Shop our used microplate readers today, or reach out to us with any questions about which one is right for you!