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Microbiol Rev. 1996 Dec;60(4):641-96.

Flow cytometry and cell sorting of heterogeneous microbial populations: the importance of single-cell analyses.

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  • 1Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Dyfed, United Kingdom.


The most fundamental questions such as whether a cell is alive, in the sense of being able to divide or to form a colony, may sometimes be very hard to answer, since even axenic microbial cultures are extremely heterogeneous. Analyses that seek to correlate such things as viability, which is a property of an individual cell, with macroscopic measurements of culture variables such as ATP content, respiratory activity, and so on, must inevitably fail. It is therefore necessary to make physiological measurements on individual cells. Flow cytometry is such a technique, which allows one to analyze cells rapidly and individually and permits the quantitative analysis of microbial heterogeneity. It therefore offers many advantages over conventional measurements for both routine and more exploratory analyses of microbial properties. While the technique has been widely applied to the study of mammalian cells, is use in microbiology has until recently been much more limited, largely because of the smaller size of microbes and the consequently smaller optical signals obtainable from them. Since these technical barriers no longer hold, flow cytometry with appropriate stains has been used for the rapid discrimination and identification of microbial cells, for the rapid assessment of viability and of the heterogeneous distributions of a wealth of other more detailed physiological properties, for the analysis of antimicrobial drug-cell interactions, and for the isolation of high-yielding strains of biotechnological interest. Flow cytometric analyses provide an abundance of multivariate data, and special methods have been devised to exploit these. Ongoing advances mean that modern flow cytometers may now be used by nonspecialists to effect a renaissance in our understanding of microbial heterogeneity.

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