Flow cytometry: a versatile technology for specific quantification and viability assessment of micro-organisms in multistrain probiotic products

J Appl Microbiol. 2018 Feb;124(2):572-584. doi: 10.1111/jam.13666. Epub 2018 Jan 15.


Aims: Classical microbiology techniques are the gold standard for probiotic enumeration. However, these techniques are limited by parameters of time, specificity and incapacity to detect viable but nonculturable (VBNC) micro-organisms and nonviable cells. The aim of the study was to evaluate flow cytometry as a novel method for the specific quantification of viable and nonviable probiotics in multistrain products.

Methods and results: Custom polyclonal antibodies were produced against five probiotic strains from different species (Bifidobacterium bifidum R0071, Bifidobacterium longum ssp. infantis R0033, Bifidobacterium longum ssp. longum R0175, Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus R0011). Evaluation of specificity confirmed that all antibodies were specific at least at the subspecies level. A flow cytometry method combining specific antibodies and viability assessment with SYTO® 24 and propidium iodide was applied to quantify these strains in three commercial products. Analyses were conducted on two flow cytometry instruments by two operators and compared with classical microbiology using selective media. Results indicated that flow cytometry provides higher cell counts than classical microbiology (P < 0·05) in 73% of cases highlighting the possible presence of VBNC. Equivalent performances (repeatability and reproducibility) were obtained for both methods.

Conclusions: This study showed that flow cytometry methods can be applied to probiotic enumeration and viability assessment. Combination with polyclonal antibodies can achieve sufficient specificity to differentiate closely related strains.

Significance and impact of the study: Flow cytometry provides absolute and specific quantification of viable and nonviable probiotic strains in a very short time (<2 h) compared with classical techniques (>48 h), bringing efficient tools for research and development and quality control.

Keywords: antibodies; flow cytometry; immunofluorescence; probiotics; specific quantification; viability.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • Bifidobacterium longum subspecies infantis / chemistry
  • Bifidobacterium longum subspecies infantis / growth & development*
  • Bifidobacterium longum subspecies infantis / isolation & purification
  • Flow Cytometry / methods*
  • Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus / chemistry
  • Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus / growth & development*
  • Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus / isolation & purification
  • Lactobacillus helveticus / chemistry
  • Lactobacillus helveticus / growth & development*
  • Lactobacillus helveticus / isolation & purification
  • Microbial Viability
  • Probiotics / chemistry*
  • Reproducibility of Results