Estimating the number of bacterial cells in a sample, known as a bacterial count, is a common task performed by microbiologists. The number of bacteria in a clinical sample serves as an indication of the extent of an infection. Quality control of drinking water, food, medication, and even cosmetics relies on estimates of bacterial counts to detect contamination and prevent the spread of disease. Two major approaches are used to measure cell number. The direct methods involve counting cells, whereas the indirect methods depend on the measurement of cell presence or activity without actually counting individual cells. Both direct and indirect methods have advantages and disadvantages for specific applications.
Direct Cell Count
Direct cell count refers to counting the cells in a liquid culture or colonies on a plate. It is a direct way of estimating how many organisms are present in a sample. Let’s look first at a simple and fast method that requires only a specialized slide and a compound microscope.
The simplest way to count bacteria is called the direct microscopic cell count, which involves transferring a known volume of a culture to a calibrated slide and counting the cells under a light microscope. The calibrated slide is called a Petroff-Hausser chamber and is similar to a hemocytometer used to count red blood cells. The central area of the counting chamber is etched into squares of various sizes. A sample of the culture suspension is added to the chamber under a coverslip that is placed at a specific height from the surface of the grid. It is possible to estimate the concentration of cells in the original sample by counting individual cells in a number of squares and determining the volume of the sample observed. The area of the squares and the height at which the coverslip is positioned are specified for the chamber. The concentration must be corrected for dilution if the sample was diluted before enumeration.
Cells in several small squares must be counted and the average taken to obtain a reliable measurement. The advantages of the chamber are that the method is easy to use, relatively fast, and inexpensive. On the downside, the counting chamber does not work well with dilute cultures because there may not be enough cells to count.
Using a counting chamber does not necessarily yield an accurate count of the number of live cells because it is not always possible to distinguish between live cells, dead cells, and debris of the same size under the microscope. However, newly developed fluorescence staining techniques make it possible to distinguish viable and dead bacteria. These viability stains (or live stains) bind to nucleic acids, but the primary and secondary stains differ in their ability to cross the cytoplasmic membrane. The primary stain, which fluoresces green, can penetrate intact cytoplasmic membranes, staining both live and dead cells. The secondary stain, which fluoresces red, can stain a cell only if the cytoplasmic membrane is considerably damaged. Thus, live cells fluoresce green because they only absorb the green stain, whereas dead cells appear red because the red stain displaces the green stain on their nucleic acids.
Another technique uses an electronic cell counting device (Coulter counter) to detect and count the changes in electrical resistance in a saline solution. A glass tube with a small opening is immersed in an electrolyte solution. A first electrode is suspended in the glass tube. A second electrode is located outside of the tube. As cells are drawn through the small aperture in the glass tube, they briefly change the resistance measured between the two electrodes and the change is recorded by an electronic sensor; each resistance change represents a cell. The method is rapid and accurate within a range of concentrations; however, if the culture is too concentrated, more than one cell may pass through the aperture at any given time and skew the results. This method also does not differentiate between live and dead cells.
Direct counts provide an estimate of the total number of cells in a sample. However, in many situations, it is important to know the number of live, or viable, cells. Counts of live cells are needed when assessing the extent of an infection, the effectiveness of antimicrobial compounds and medication, or contamination of food and water.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology