The Indirect Cell Counts


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(a) A spectrophotometer is commonly used to measure the turbidity of a bacterial cell suspension as an indirect measure of cell density. (b) A spectrophotometer works by splitting white light from a source into a spectrum. The spectrophotometer allows choice of the wavelength of light to use for the measurement. The optical density (turbidity) of the sample will depend on the wavelength, so once one wavelength is chosen, it must be used consistently. The filtered light passes through the sample (or a control with only medium) and the light intensity is measured by a detector. The light passing into a suspension of bacteria is scattered by the cells in such a way that some fraction of it never reaches the detector. This scattering happens to a far lesser degree in the control tube with only the medium. (credit a: modification of work by Hwang HS, Kim MS; credit b “test tube photos”: modification of work by Suzanne Wakim)

OpenStax Microbiology

Besides direct methods of counting cells, other methods, based on an indirect detection of cell density, are commonly used to estimate and compare cell densities in a culture. The foremost approach is to measure the turbidity (cloudiness) of a sample of bacteria in a liquid suspension. The laboratory instrument used to measure turbidity is called a spectrophotometer. In a spectrophotometer, a light beam is transmitted through a bacterial suspension, the light passing through the suspension is measured by a detector, and the amount of light passing through the sample and reaching the detector is converted to either percent transmission or a logarithmic value called absorbance (optical density). As the numbers of bacteria in a suspension increase, the turbidity also increases and causes less light to reach the detector. The decrease in light passing through the sample and reaching the detector is associated with a decrease in percent transmission and increase in absorbance measured by the spectrophotometer.

Measuring turbidity is a fast method to estimate cell density as long as there are enough cells in a sample to produce turbidity. It is possible to correlate turbidity readings to the actual number of cells by performing a viable plate count of samples taken from cultures having a range of absorbance values. Using these values, a calibration curve is generated by plotting turbidity as a function of cell density. Once the calibration curve has been produced, it can be used to estimate cell counts for all samples obtained or cultured under similar conditions and with densities within the range of values used to construct the curve.

Measuring dry weight of a culture sample is another indirect method of evaluating culture density without directly measuring cell counts. The cell suspension used for weighing must be concentrated by filtration or centrifugation, washed, and then dried before the measurements are taken. The degree of drying must be standardized to account for residual water content. This method is especially useful for filamentous microorganisms, which are difficult to enumerate by direct or viable plate count.

Methods to estimate viable cell numbers can be labor intensive and take time because cells must be grown. Recently, indirect ways of measuring live cells have been developed that are both fast and easy to implement. These methods measure cell activity by following the production of metabolic products or disappearance of reactants. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) formation, biosynthesis of proteins and nucleic acids, and consumption of oxygen can all be monitored to estimate the number of cells.


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