Exocytosis of MTT formazan could exacerbate cell injury

Toxicol In Vitro. 2012 Jun;26(4):636-44. doi: 10.1016/j.tiv.2012.02.006. Epub 2012 Feb 28.


MTT [3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide] method is one of the most widely used methods to analyze cell proliferation and viability. It is taken up through endocytosis and is reduced by mitochondrial enzymes as well as endosomal/lysosomal compartments, then is transported to cell surfaces to form needle-like MTT formazans; however the effect of MTT itself still remains elusive. Our objective was to investigate the direct effects of MTT on in vitro SH-SY5Y cells. Results showed that the endocytosis of MTT did not cause obvious lesion and induce cell death, but the metabolism and exocytosis of MTT could dramatically damage cells. Our results also indicated that MTT could activate apoptosis related factors such as caspase-8, caspase-3 or accelerate the leakage of cell contents after the appearance of MTT formazan crystals. The present data suggest MTT method should be carefully chosen; otherwise the cell viability would be underestimated and incomparable.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Caspase 3 / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival / drug effects*
  • Exocytosis
  • Formazans / metabolism
  • Formazans / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Tetrazolium Salts / metabolism
  • Tetrazolium Salts / toxicity*


  • Formazans
  • Tetrazolium Salts
  • MTT formazan
  • Caspase 3