Using flow cytometry for counting natural planktonic bacteria and understanding the structure of planktonic bacterial communities
Keywords:heterotrophic and phototrophic bacteria, flow cytometry, counting bacteria, active bacteria
Flow cytometry is rapidly becoming a routine methodology in aquatic microbial ecology. The combination of simple to use bench-top flow cytometers and highly fluorescent nucleic acid stains allows fast and easy determination of microbe abundance in the plankton of lakes and oceans. The different dyes and protocols used to stain and count planktonic bacteria as well as the equipment in use are reviewed, with special attention to some of the problems encountered in daily routine practice such as fixation, staining and absolute counting. One of the main advantages of flow cytometry over epifluorescence microscopy is the ability to obtain cell-specific measurements in large numbers of cells with limited effort. We discuss how this characteristic has been used for differentiating photosynthetic from non-photosynthetic prokaryotes, for measuring bacterial cell size and nucleic acid content, and for estimating the relative activity and physiological state of each cell. We also describe how some of the flow cytometrically obtained data can be used to characterize the role of microbes on carbon cycling in the aquatic environment and we prospect the likely avenues of progress in the study of planktonic prokaryotes through the use of flow cytometry.
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