Tetrazolium dyes as tools in cell biology: new insights into their cellular reduction

Biotechnol Annu Rev. 2005;11:127-52. doi: 10.1016/S1387-2656(05)11004-7.


Tetrazolium salts have become some of the most widely used tools in cell biology for measuring the metabolic activity of cells ranging from mammalian to microbial origin. With mammalian cells, fractionation studies indicate that the reduced pyridine nucleotide cofactor, NADH, is responsible for most MTT reduction and this is supported by studies with whole cells. MTT reduction is associated not only with mitochondria, but also with the cytoplasm and with non-mitochondrial membranes including the endosome/lysosome compartment and the plasma membrane. The net positive charge on tetrazolium salts like MTT and NBT appears to be the predominant factor involved in their cellular uptake via the plasma membrane potential. However, second generation tetrazolium dyes that form water-soluble formazans and require an intermediate electron acceptor for reduction (XTT, WST-1 and to some extent, MTS), are characterised by a net negative charge and are therefore largely cell-impermeable. Considerable evidence indicates that their reduction occurs at the cell surface, or at the level of the plasma membrane via trans-plasma membrane electron transport. The implications of these new findings are discussed in terms of the use of tetrazolium dyes as indicators of cell metabolism and their applications in cell biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Division / physiology*
  • Cell Survival / physiology
  • Coloring Agents / chemistry
  • Coloring Agents / metabolism
  • Cytological Techniques / methods
  • Humans
  • Molecular Structure
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Tetrazolium Salts / chemistry
  • Tetrazolium Salts / metabolism*


  • Coloring Agents
  • Tetrazolium Salts