Staining bacteria with esterified fluorogenic substrates followed by flow cytometric analysis offers a means for rapid detection of metabolically active bacteria. Flow cytometry (FCM) was used to assess carboxyfluorescein diacetate (CFDA) and carboxyfluorescein diacetate succinimidyl ester (CFDA/SE) as indicators of bacterial activity for cultured bacteria, including Aeromonas hydrophila, Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus epidermidis and bacteria from environmental waters. In theory, CFDA/SE should be a better indicator of metabolic bacterial activity compared to CFDA due to greater intracellular retention of the fluorescent product. Qualitative and quantitative analysis of exponential phase cultures, mixtures of active and inactive cells and bacteria from environmental waters revealed CFDA was successful in detecting active bacteria, whereas CFDA/SE was not. CFDA/SE labelled inactive cells with intensities equal to that of the active population and could not even discriminate between bacteria in exponential phase growth and a fixed cell preparation. We propose that the specific mode of action of the succinimidyl ester (SE) group in combination with the nonenzymatic aqueous hydrolysis of the CFDA moiety results in the nonspecific labelling of all cells, irrespective of their metabolic state. This study shows that CFDA/SE is a poor marker of bacterial activity.