Many bacterial species have been found to exist in a viable but non-culturable (VBNC) state since its discovery in 1982. VBNC cells are characterized by a loss of culturability on routine agar, which impairs their detection by conventional plate count techniques. This leads to an underestimation of total viable cells in environmental or clinical samples, and thus poses a risk to public health. In this review, we present recent findings on the VBNC state of human bacterial pathogens. The characteristics of VBNC cells, including the similarities and differences to viable, culturable cells and dead cells, and different detection methods are discussed. Exposure to various stresses can induce the VBNC state, and VBNC cells may be resuscitated back to culturable cells under suitable stimuli. The conditions that trigger the induction of the VBNC state and resuscitation from it are summarized and the mechanisms underlying these two processes are discussed. Last but not least, the significance of VBNC cells and their potential influence on human health are also reviewed.
Keywords: VBNC; antibiotic; biofilm; human pathogens; resuscitation; stress; virulence.