Apoptosis and beyond: cytometry in studies of programmed cell death

Methods Cell Biol. 2011;103:55-98. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-385493-3.00004-8.


A cell undergoing apoptosis demonstrates multitude of characteristic morphological and biochemical features, which vary depending on the inducer of apoptosis, cell type and the "time window" at which the process of apoptosis is observed. Because the gross majority of apoptotic hallmarks can be revealed by flow and image cytometry, the cytometric methods become a technology of choice in diverse studies of cellular demise. Variety of cytometric methods designed to identify apoptotic cells, detect particular events of apoptosis and probe mechanisms associated with this mode of cell death have been developed during the past two decades. In the present review, we outline commonly used methods that are based on the assessment of mitochondrial transmembrane potential, activation of caspases, DNA fragmentation, and plasma membrane alterations. We also present novel developments in the field such as the use of cyanine SYTO and TO-PRO family of probes. Strategies of selecting the optimal multiparameter approaches, as well as potential difficulties in the experimental procedures, are thoroughly summarized.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis*
  • Caspases / metabolism*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane Permeability
  • DNA Fragmentation*
  • Flow Cytometry / methods*
  • Fluorescent Dyes / analysis
  • Humans
  • Image Cytometry / methods*
  • In Situ Nick-End Labeling / methods*
  • Membrane Potential, Mitochondrial
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Necrosis*


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Caspases