The Neutralization Assay


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A photograph of wells showing a smooth purple background with white spots.
In a neutralization assay, antibodies in patient serum neutralize viruses added to the wells, preventing the formation of plaques. In the assay pictured, the wells with numerous plaques (white patches) contain a low concentration of antibodies. The wells with relatively few plaques have a high concentration of antibodies. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

To cause infection, viruses must bind to receptors on host cells. Antiviral antibodies can neutralize viral infections by coating the virions, blocking the binding. This activity neutralizes virions and can result in the formation of large antibody-virus complexes (which are readily removed by phagocytosis) or by antibody binding to the virus and blocking its binding to host cell receptors. This neutralization activity is the basis of neutralization assays, sensitive assays used for diagnoses of viral infections.

When viruses infect cells, they often cause damage (cytopathic effects) that may include lysis of the host cells. Cytopathic effects can be visualized by growing host cells in a petri dish, covering the cells with a thin layer of agar, and then adding virus. The virus will diffuse very slowly through the agar. A virus will enter a host cell, proliferate (causing cell damage), be released from the dead host cell, and then move to neighboring cells. As more and more cells die, plaques of dead cells will form.

During the course of a viral infection, the patient will mount an antibody response to the virus, and we can quantify those antibodies using a plaque reduction assay. To perform the assay, a serial dilution is carried out on a serum sample. Each dilution is then mixed with a standardized amount of the suspect virus. Any virus-specific antibodies in the serum will neutralize some of the virus. The suspensions are then added to host cells in culture to allow any nonneutralized virus to infect the cells and form plaques after several days. The titer is defined as the reciprocal of the highest dilution showing a 50% reduction in plaques. Titer is always expressed as a whole number. For example, if a 1/64 dilution was the highest dilution to show 50% plaque reduction, then the titer is 64.

The presence of antibodies in the patient’s serum does not tell us whether the patient is currently infected or was infected in the past. Current infections can be identified by waiting two weeks and testing another serum sample. A four-fold increase in neutralizing titer in this second sample indicates a new infection.


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