The Gram Staining

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Gram-staining is a differential staining technique that uses a primary stain and a secondary counterstain to distinguish between gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

The Gram stain procedure is a differential staining procedure that involves multiple steps. It was developed by Danish microbiologist Hans Christian Gram in 1884 as an effective method to distinguish between bacteria with different types of cell walls, and even today it remains one of the most frequently used staining techniques. The steps of the Gram stain procedure are listed below.

1. First, crystal violet, a primary stain, is applied to a heat-fixed smear, giving all of the cells a purple color.

2. Next, Gram’s iodine, a mordant, is added. A mordant is a substance used to set or stabilize stains or dyes; in this case, Gram’s iodine acts like a trapping agent that complexes with the crystal violet, making the crystal violet–iodine complex clump and stay contained in thick layers of peptidoglycan in the cell walls.

3. Next, a decolorizing agent is added, usually ethanol or an acetone/ethanol solution. Cells that have thick peptidoglycan layers in their cell walls are much less affected by the decolorizing agent; they generally retain the crystal violet dye and remain purple. However, the decolorizing agent more easily washes the dye out of cells with thinner peptidoglycan layers, making them again colorless.

4. Finally, a secondary counterstain, usually safranin, is added. This stains the decolorized cells pink and is less noticeable in the cells that still contain the crystal violet dye.

The purple, crystal-violet stained cells are referred to as gram-positive cells, while the red, safranin-dyed cells are gram-negative. However, there are several important considerations in interpreting the results of a Gram stain. First, older bacterial cells may have damage to their cell walls that causes them to appear gramnegative even if the species is gram-positive. Thus, it is best to use fresh bacterial cultures for Gram staining. Second, errors such as leaving on decolorizer too long can affect the results. In some cases, most cells will appear grampositive while a few appear gram-negative. This suggests damage to the individual cells or that decolorizer was left on for too long; the cells should still be classified as gram-positive if they are all the same species rather than a mixed culture.

Besides their differing interactions with dyes and decolorizing agents, the chemical differences between grampositive and gram-negative cells have other implications with clinical relevance. For example, Gram staining can help clinicians classify bacterial pathogens in a sample into categories associated with specific properties. Gram-negative bacteria tend to be more resistant to certain antibiotics than gram-positive bacteria.

In this specimen, the gram-positive bacterium Staphylococcus aureus retains crystal violet dye even after the decolorizing agent is added. Gram-negative Escherichia coli, the most common Gram stain quality-control bacterium, is decolorized, and is only visible after the addition of the pink counterstain safranin. (credit: modification of work by Nina Parker)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: