Modern flow cytometers are able to analyze several thousand particles every second, in "real time," and can actively separate and isolate particles having specified properties. A flow cytometer is similar to a microscope, except that, instead of producing an image of the cell, flow cytometry offers "high-throughput" (for a large number of cells) automated quantification of set parameters. To analyze solid tissues, a single-cell suspension must first be prepared.
A flow cytometer has five main components:
- a flow cell - liquid stream (sheath fluid), which carries and aligns the cells so that they pass single file through the light beam for sensing
- a measuring system - commonly used are measurement of impedance (or conductivity) and optical systems - lamps (mercury, xenon); high-power water-cooled lasers (argon, krypton, dye laser); low-power air-cooled lasers (argon (488 nm), red-HeNe (633 nm), green-HeNe, HeCd (UV)); diode lasers (blue, green, red, violet) resulting in light signals
- a detector and Analogue-to-Digital Conversion (ADC) system - which generates FSC and SSC as well as fluorescence signals from light into electrical signals that can be processed by a computer
- an amplification system - linear or logarithmic
- a computer for analysis of the signals.
The process of collecting data from samples using the flow cytometer is termed 'acquisition'. Acquisition is mediated by a computer physically connected to the flow cytometer, and the software which handles the digital interface with the cytometer. The software is capable of adjusting parameters (i.e. voltage, compensation, etc.) for the sample being tested, and also assists in displaying initial sample information while acquiring sample data to insure that parameters are set correctly. Early flow cytometers were, in general, experimental devices, but technological advances have enabled widespread applications for use in a variety of both clinical and research purposes. Due to these developments, a considerable market for instrumentation, analysis software, as well as the reagents used in acquisition such as fluorescently-labeled antibodies has developed.
Modern instruments usually have multiple lasers and fluorescence detectors. The current record for a commercial instrument is four lasers and 18 fluorescence detectors. Increasing the number of lasers and detectors allows for multiple antibody labeling, and can more precisely identify a target population by their phenotypic markers. Certain instruments can even take digital images of individual cells, allowing for the analysis of fluorescent signal location within or on the surface of cells.
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