Methodological aspects of measuring absolute values of membrane potential in human cells by flow cytometry

Cytometry A. 2009 Jul;75(7):593-608. doi: 10.1002/cyto.a.20735.


The bis-barbituric acid oxonol, DiBAC(4)(3) is used as a standard potentiometric probe in human cells. However, its fluorescence depends not only on membrane potential but also varies with nonpotential related changes in the amount of intracellular free and bound dye. This study demonstrates the influence of different experimental conditions on this nonspecific fluorescence proportion. IGR1 melanoma cells as a model were specifically altered in cell volume and protein content by depolarizing treatments or cell cycle synchronization. Flow cytometry was performed over a wide range of extracellular DiBAC(4)(3) concentrations. Fixation and increase in protein content led to a nonspecifically enhanced fluorescence, while changes in the amount of free intracellular dye as a result of altered cell volume proved to be negligible. To establish a calibration curve using totally depolarized cells, the pore-forming action of gramicidin should be preferred to fixation. Below 100 nM DiBAC(4)(3), the logarithmic relation between cell fluorescence and dye concentration turned into a virtually linear function intersecting with zero. Consequently, calibration can then be confined to determination of the fluorescence of depolarized cells stained with the same concentration as used for the actual measurement of membrane potential. Unexpectedly, quenching of fluorescence occurred in totally depolarized cells at concentrations higher than 6,250 nM. Linearity and quenching could be confirmed by additional experiments on Chinese hamster ovary CHO-K1 and B lymphoblastoid LCL-HO cells.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Barbiturates / pharmacology
  • CHO Cells
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cricetinae
  • Cricetulus
  • Flow Cytometry / methods*
  • Fluorescent Dyes / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Isoxazoles / pharmacology
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Confocal


  • Barbiturates
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Isoxazoles
  • bis(1,3-dibutylbarbiturate)trimethine oxonol