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J Microbiol Methods. 2003 Jan;52(1):47-58.

Applicability of tetrazolium salts for the measurement of respiratory activity and viability of groundwater bacteria.

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Envirogen, Inc., 4100 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648, USA.


A study was undertaken to measure aerobic respiration by indigenous bacteria in a sand and gravel aquifer on western Cape Cod, MA using tetrazolium salts and by direct oxygen consumption using gas chromatography (GC). In groundwater and aquifer slurries, the rate of aerobic respiration calculated from the direct GC assay was more than 600 times greater than that using the tetrazolium salt 2-(4-iodophenyl)-3-(4-nitrophenyl)-5-phenyl tetrazolium chloride (INT). To explain this discrepancy, the toxicity of INT and two additional tetrazolium salts, sodium 3'-[1-(phenylamino)-carbonyl]-3,4-tetrazolium]-bis(4-methoxy-6-nitro) benzenesulfonic acid hydrate (XTT) and 5-cyano-2,3-ditolyl tetrazolium chloride (CTC), to bacterial isolates from the aquifer was investigated. Each of the three tetrazolium salts was observed to be toxic to some of the groundwater isolates at concentrations normally used in electron transport system (ETS) and viability assays. For example, incubation of cells with XTT (3 mM) caused the density of four of the five groundwater strains tested to decline by more than four orders of magnitude. A reasonable percentage (>57%) of cells killed by CTC and INT contained visible formazan crystals (the insoluble, reduced form of the salts) after 4 h of incubation. Thus, many of the cells reduced enough CTC or INT prior to dying to be considered viable by microscopic evaluation. However, one bacterium (Pseudomonas fluorescens) that remained viable and culturable in the presence of INT and CTC, did not incorporate formazan crystals into more than a few percent of cells, even after 24 h of incubation. This strain would be considered nonviable based on traditional tetrazolium salt reduction assays. The data show that tetrazolium salt assays are likely to dramatically underestimate total ETS activity in groundwater and, although they may provide a reasonable overall estimate of viable cell numbers in a community of groundwater bacteria, some specific strains may be falsely considered nonviable by this assay due to poor uptake or reduction of the salts.

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