Membrane potential can be determined in individual cells from the nernstian distribution of cationic dyes

Biophys J. 1988 May;53(5):785-94. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(88)83158-8.


The distribution of a selection of cationic fluorescent dyes can be used to measure the membrane potential of individual cells with a microfluorometer. The essential attributes of these dyes include membrane permeability, low membrane binding, spectral properties which are insensitive to environment, and, of course, strong fluorescence. A series of dyes were screened on HeLa cells for their ability to meet these criteria and several commercially available dyes were found to be satisfactory. In addition, two new dyes were synthesized for this work by esterification of tetramethyl rhodamine. The analysis of the measured fluorescent intensities requires correction for fluorescence collected from outside the plane of focus of the cell and for nonpotentiometric binding of the dye. The measurements and analysis were performed on three different cell types for which there exists a body of literature on membrane potential; the potentials determined in this work were always within the range of literature values. The rhodamine esters are nontoxic, highly fluorescent dyes which do not form aggregates or display binding-dependent changes in fluorescence efficiency. Thus, their reversible accumulation is quantitatively related to the contrast between intracellular and extracellular fluorescence and allows membrane potentials in individual cells to be continuously monitored.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Membrane / physiology*
  • Cell Survival
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • HeLa Cells / physiology
  • Humans
  • Membrane Potentials*


  • Fluorescent Dyes