Monitoring the progression of cell death and the disassembly of dying cells by flow cytometry

Nat Protoc. 2016 Apr;11(4):655-63. doi: 10.1038/nprot.2016.028. Epub 2016 Mar 3.


The use of annexin A5 (A5) and either propidium iodide or 7-aminoactinomycin D (PI/7-AAD) stains to measure cell death by flow cytometry has been considered the gold standard by most investigators. However, this widely used method often makes the assumption that there are only three types of particles in a sample: viable, apoptotic and necrotic cells. To study the progression of cell death in greater detail, in particular how apoptotic cells undergo fragmentation to generate membrane-bound vesicles known as apoptotic bodies, we established a flow cytometry-based protocol to accurately and rapidly measure the cell death process. This protocol uses a combination of A5 and TO-PRO-3 (a commercially available nucleic acid-binding dye that stains early apoptotic and necrotic cells differentially), and a logical seven-stage analytical approach to distinguish six types of particles in a sample, including apoptotic bodies and cells at three different stages of cell death. The protocol requires 1-5 h for sample preparation (including induction of cell death), 20 min for staining and 5 min for data analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Annexin A5 / analysis*
  • Cell Death*
  • Cell Line
  • Flow Cytometry / methods*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Nucleic Acids / analysis*
  • Staining and Labeling / methods
  • Time Factors


  • Annexin A5
  • Nucleic Acids