The intracellular pool of chelatable iron is considered to be a decisive pathogenetic factor for various kinds of cell injury. We therefore set about establishing a method of detecting chelatable iron in isolated hepatocytes based on digital fluorescence microscopy. The fluorescence of hepatocytes loaded with the fluorescent metal indicators, phen green SK (PG SK), phen green FL (PG FL), calcein, or fluorescein desferrioxamine (FL-DFO), was quenched when iron was added to the cells in a membrane-permeable form. It increased when cellular chelatable iron available to the probe was experimentally decreased by an excess of various membrane-permeable transition metal chelators. The quenching by means of the ferrous ammonium sulfate + citrate complex and also the "dequenching" using 2,2'-dipyridyl (2,2'-DPD) were largest for PG. We therefore optimized the conditions for its use in hepatocytes and tested the influence of possible confounding factors. An ex situ calibration method was set up to determine the chelatable iron pool of cultured hepatocytes from the increase of PG SK fluorescence after the addition of excess 2,2'-DPD. Using this method, we found 9.8 +/- 2.9 micromol/L (mean +/- SEM; n = 18) chelatable iron in rat hepatocytes, which constituted 1.0% +/- 0.3% of the total iron content of the cells as determined by atomic absorption spectroscopy. The concentration of chelatable iron in hepatocytes was higher than the one in K562 cells (4.0 +/- 1.3 micromol/L; mean +/- SEM; n = 8), which were used for comparison. This method allowed us to record time courses of iron uptake and of iron chelation by different chelators (e.g., deferoxamine, 1,10-phenanthroline) in single, intact cells.