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J Appl Microbiol. 1998 Jun;84(6):988-98.

Assessment of bacterial viability status by flow cytometry and single cell sorting.

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Unilever Research, Colworth Laboratory, Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire, UK.


Rapid bacterial detection and viability measurements have been greatly enhanced by recent advances in the use of fluorescent stains in cytometry. It has previously been shown that four physiological states can be distinguished: reproductively viable, metabolically active, intact and permeabilized. Previous sorting experiments have shown that not all intact cells readily grow, but some intact cells can grow even when they fail to show metabolic activity, as determined by esterase turnover. To circumvent the limitations imposed by active dye extrusion or cell dormancy on viability measurements used to date (e.g., enzyme activity or cell polarization), a fast triple fluorochrome staining procedure has been developed that takes account of these problems. This allows further cellular characterization of intact cells by: active exclusion of ethidium bromide (EB) (metabolically active cells), uptake of EB but exclusion of bis-oxonol (BOX) (de-energized but with a polarized cell membrane) and uptake of both dyes (depolarized). Permeabilized cells were identified by propidium iodide (PI) uptake. The method was validated using an electronically programmable single cell sorter (EPICS Elite) and aged Salmonella typhimurium cells. Reproductive viability was determined by sorting single cells to their staining pattern directly onto agar plates. Most polarized cells could be recovered as well as a significant fraction of the depolarized cells, demonstrating that depolarization is a sensitive measure of cell damage but a poor indicator of cell death.

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