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Nov 15, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 20)

"Simplexity" of Flow Cytometry Technology

Managing Complexity through Proper Instrument Design

  • Life science researchers first learned of the utility of flow cytometry as a result of Prof. Wolfgang Göhde’s pioneering work at the University of Münster in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    Leonard Herzenberg, Ph.D., professor at Stanford University, expanded the technique and introduced the term fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS).

    Flow cytometry has since grown considerably in both complexity and breadth of applications. Modern instruments combine highly diverse technologies, including fluidics, flow cells, lasers, optical detection systems, electronic signal processing, and software for system control and data analysis. All must be optimized, precisely matched, and work in perfect unison for optimal instrument performance.

    “Simplexity”, which describes the complementary relationship between simplicity and complexity, seems apropos for the translation of flow cytometry potential into practice. Today’s flow cytometers are far more complex than their predecessors of even a decade ago. Yet, they are easier to operate, thanks to advanced hardware design and software features.

    Today’s high-performance flow cytometers are a considerable investment for research laboratories. The range of choices in features and instrument design can be intimidating but can provide a significant return on investment in adaptability and future flexibility.

  • Myriad Applications

    Flow cytometry has emerged as a powerful tool in the life sciences. In molecular biology, when used with fluorescence-tagged antibodies, the technique is employed primarily to identify cells (phenotyping) and to acquire specific cellular functional information. While the most common research application is multicolor immunophenotyping, flow cytometry can be used in medicine for such diverse applications as HIV research, vaccine development, leukemia and lymphoma studies, investigations into graph-versus-host disease, tumor immunology, and autoimmune disorders. 

    In addition to identifying specific cells, flow cytometry has aided studies of cell activation, stem cells, cell signaling, cell development, and apoptosis. Although the majority of applications exploit the identification of fluorescent markers on the surface of cell membranes, flow cytometry also detects and analyzes soluble proteins or analytes inside the cell, thus providing information at the protein-cell level.

    In marine biology, flow cytometric characterization of the autofluorescent properties of photosynthetic plankton has uncovered the complex community structure of marine populations.

    Every enabling technology associated with flow cytometry, including reagents and hardware, has grown with the diversity of flow cytometry applications. Today’s lasers provide a nearly unlimited variety of practical wavelengths and powers. With more colors to choose from, the analysis of the cell population(s) of interest becomes more specific.

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