In this day and age, most labs find themselves in a situation where doing a little PCR here and there is useful. Even if you will not be doing routine or high-throughput applications the occasional amplification is handy and useful. While most institutes have a variety of equipment available in core facilities or shared between multiple labs, this may not always be the best solution. Frequently, thermal cyclers will be under heavy use, or there may be a variety of different thermal cyclers requiring optimization of the protocol between instruments, which may result in inconsistencies in amplification.
The obvious solution to a problem of this nature is to purchase a thermal cycler for the lab. However, infrequent users often do not have the required funds or space for a full size, full function thermal cycler. To fit this niche many companies are now offering “personal” thermal cyclers. These are instruments which offer a smaller, space-saving footprint along with a lower initial cost than full size machines. These personal thermal cyclers vary somewhat in capacity and functionality, but are by and large very similar between manufacturers.
The Bio-Rad MJ Mini Gradient Thermal Cycler is a top of the line personal thermal cycler offering gradient capabilities. The instrument is equipped with a block capable of accepting 48 samples and comes equipped with a heated lid to minimize sample loss due to evaporation/condensation. The user interface is both alphanumeric and graphic allowing for quick visual appraisal of cycle progression.
The gradient feature is an excellent addition to an instrument of this type as in many cases researchers are performing one-off amplifications where no parameters have been established. The gradient allows amplification at eight different temperatures ranging over 16°C. This makes short work of optimizing new primer sets by testing as many as eight annealing temperatures in a single run.
While a program is running, the MJ mini offers several screen views which are quite informative. There is a Runtime screen which shows the protocol name and the current step. Alternatively, the view can be toggled to show a Temperture Display screen. This screen provides a graphical display of the protocol illustrating the current step along with a counter that marks the amount time that has elapsed on the current step. Finally, there is a Time Remaining screen which provides a countdown timer with the hours, minutes and seconds remaining to the completion of the protocol. This screen is extremely useful in helping plan when samples will need to be pulled, gels poured, and so on.
The user interface is quite intuitive and makes entering new programs or modification of existing programs quick and easy. There are detailed instructions available in the accompanying manual, but everyone who has used the instrument in our lab has been able to do all necessary programming simply and easily without the need to consult the manual.
Finally, this thermal cycler offers something that I believe is unique in this market. With the addition of Bio-Rad’s MiniOpticon 2-Color Real-Time PCR system, this system is capable of performing Real-Time PCR. While many researchers would never need an expansion of this nature, it provides an expandability which offers access to a powerful and ever more common technology.
Researchers in the market for a personal thermal cycler would do well to consider this instrument. While it may be more expensive than some competitive products, it offers features that make it stand out. In the end, it provides an excellent quality machine which is easy to use and expandable. For any lab not doing larger sample numbers, the MJ mini would provide all the PCR machine they would ever need and more.