Microbial analysis at the single-cell level: tasks and techniques

J Microbiol Methods. 2000 Sep;42(1):3-16. doi: 10.1016/s0167-7012(00)00167-6.


The heterogeneity of microorganisms themselves is orders of magnitude greater than the heterogeneity of perspectives from which they are contemplated by human observers. Even closely related species may exhibit marked differences in biochemistry and behavior, and, under many conditions, similar, striking heterogeneity may exist within a clonal population of organisms which, in the aggregate, occupy too small a region of space to be visible to the unaided human eye. Using methods of microscopy, microspectrophotometry, and cytometry developed and refined since the 1960s, it is now possible to characterize the physiology and pharmacology of individual microorganisms, and, in many cases, to isolate organisms with selected characteristics for culture and/or further analysis. These methods include fluorescent and confocal microscopy, scanning and image cytometry, and flow cytometry. Fluorescence measurements are particularly important in single-cell analysis; they allow demonstration and quantification of cells' nucleic acid content and sequence, of the presence of specific antigens, and of physiologic characteristics such as enzyme activity and membrane potential. Multiparameter cytometry, combined with cell sorting, provides insight into population heterogeneity and allows selected cells to be separated for further analysis and culture. The technology is applicable to a wide range of problems in contemporary microbiology, including strain selection and the development of antimicrobial agents.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / cytology*
  • Bacteria / growth & development
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Bacteriological Techniques
  • Culture Media
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Humans
  • Microbiological Techniques*


  • Culture Media
  • Fluorescent Dyes