Dead or alive: molecular assessment of microbial viability

Appl Environ Microbiol. 2014 Oct;80(19):5884-91. doi: 10.1128/AEM.01763-14. Epub 2014 Jul 18.


Nucleic acid-based analytical methods, ranging from species-targeted PCRs to metagenomics, have greatly expanded our understanding of microbiological diversity in natural samples. However, these methods provide only limited information on the activities and physiological states of microorganisms in samples. Even the most fundamental physiological state, viability, cannot be assessed cross-sectionally by standard DNA-targeted methods such as PCR. New PCR-based strategies, collectively called molecular viability analyses, have been developed that differentiate nucleic acids associated with viable cells from those associated with inactivated cells. In order to maximize the utility of these methods and to correctly interpret results, it is necessary to consider the physiological diversity of life and death in the microbial world. This article reviews molecular viability analysis in that context and discusses future opportunities for these strategies in genetic, metagenomic, and single-cell microbiology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane Permeability*
  • DNA, Bacterial / analysis*
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • Metagenomics*
  • Microbial Viability*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • RNA Precursors / analysis
  • RNA Precursors / genetics
  • RNA, Bacterial / analysis*
  • RNA, Bacterial / genetics


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • RNA Precursors
  • RNA, Bacterial