Flow cytometry is a widely used method for analyzing the expression of cell surface and intracellular molecules, characterizing and defining different cell types in a heterogeneous cell population, assessing the purity of isolated subpopulations and analyzing cell size and volume. It allows simultaneous multi-parameter analysis of single cells.
This technique is a laser-based, biophysical technology employed in cell counting, cell sorting, biomarker detection and protein engineering, by suspending cells in a stream of fluid and passing them through an electronic detection apparatus. A flow cytometer allows simultaneous multiparametric analysis of the physical and chemical characteristics of up to thousands of particles per second.
When a cell suspension is run through the cytometer, sheath fluid is used to hydrodynamically focus the cell suspension through a small nozzle. The tiny stream of fluid takes the cells past the laser light one cell at a time. Light scattered from the cells or particles is detected as they go through the laser beam. A detector in front of the light beam measures forward scatter (FS) and several detectors to the side measure side scatter (SS). Fluorescence detectors measure the fluorescence emitted from positively stained cells or particles.
Cells or particles passing through the beam scatter light, which is detected as FS and SS. FS correlates with cell size and SS is proportional to the granularity of the cells. In this manner, cell populations can often be distinguished based on differences in their size and granularity alone.
A useful example of this is when running blood samples on the flow cytometer.
Therefore, these cells can be separated into different populations based on their FS and SS alone.
Each dot represents a single cell analyzed by the flow cytometer. The characteristic position of different cell populations is determined by differences in cell size and granularity. Image reference: Riley and Idowu. Principles and Applications of Flow Cytometry
As well as separating cells based on FS and SS, cells can also be separated by whether they express a particular protein. In this case, a fluorochrome is often used to stain the protein of interest. Fluorochromes used for the detection of target proteins emit light when excited by a laser with the corresponding excitation wavelength. These fluorescent stained cells or particles can be detected individually.
Forward and side scattered light and fluorescence from stained cells are split into defined wavelengths and channeled by a set of filters and mirrors within the flow cytometer. The fluorescent light is filtered so that each sensor will detect fluorescence only at a specified wavelength. These sensors are called photomultiplying tubes (PMTs).
As the fluorescing cell passes through the laser beam, it creates a peak or pulse of photon emission over time. These are detected by the PMT and converted to a voltage pulse, known as an event. The total pulse height and area is measured by the flow cytometer. The measured voltage pulse area will correlate directly to the intensity of fluorescence for that event. The pulse area is calculated by adding the height values for each time slice of the pulse, determined by the speed of the analog to digital converter (ADC), which is 10 MHz (i.e. 10 million per second or 10 per microsecond). These events are assigned channels based on pulse intensity (pulse area). This signal can be amplified by turning up the voltage going through the PMT. Each event is given a channel number depending on its measured intensity; the more intense the fluorescence, the higher the channel number the event is assigned.
The ability of a given antibody to resolve a positive signal from a negative signal often depends on which fluorochrome conjugate is used. A general guideline for the relative intensities of the various fluorochromes is, from brightest to dimmest, PE, PE-Cy 7, PE-Cy5, APC, APC-Cy7, Alexa Fluor 647®, Alexa Fluor 700®, FITC, Pacific Blue, Alexa Fluor 488®. This is a general pattern; some differences in the relative intensities are seen for individual antibodies.
A highly expressed antigen will usually be detected and resolved from the negative control with almost any fluorochrome. An antigen expressed at lower density might require the higher signal to background ratio provided by a brighter PE or APC conjugate to separate the positive cells adequately from the unstained cells.