Living cells

From Bioblast

high-resolution terminology - matching measurements at high-resolution

Living cells


Cell viability in living cells should be >95 % for various experimental investigations, including cell respirometry. Viable cells (vce) are characterized by an intact plasma membrane barrier function. The total cell count (Nce) is the sum of viable cells (Nvce) and dead cells (Ndce). In contrast, the plasma membrane can be permeabilized selectively by mild detergents (digitonin), to obtain the mt-preparation of permeabilized cells used for cell ergometry. Living cells are frequently labelled as intact cells in the sense of the total cell count, but intact may suggest dual meanings of viable or unaffected by a disease or mitochondrial injury.

Abbreviation: ce

Reference: BEC 2020.1, Gnaiger 2020 BEC MitoPathways, MiPNet08.09 CellRespiration


HRR and living cells

For details, see

Respiration medium

The choice of respiratory medium depends on the scientific question and the applied protocol. The advantage of cell culture media is the availability of substrates (e.g. glucose, glutamine), appropriate ionic composition for maintaining the plasma membrane potential and intact signaling (particularly high [Ca2+]). Conditions during respiratory measurement can then be maintained close to cell culture conditions.
Respiration of living cells may be measured in mitochondrial respiration medium (e.g. MiR05) followed by permeabilization of the plasma membrane by digitonin for application of mitochondria-targeted SUIT (substrate-uncoupler-inhibitor titration) protocols. Measuring respiration of permeabilized cells, allowing direct access to the mitochondria, is not possible in cell culture media. These media contain high Ca2+ concentrations, important for cell physiology as an extracellular concentration, but damaging for mitochondria which swell and disrupt after permeabilization of the plasma membrane at high Ca2+ concentrations.

Respiratory states

ROUTINE and LEAK respiration, Electron transfer pathway capacity and ROX can be determined in viable cells (see Gnaiger 2020 BEC MitoPathways). These respiratory coupling states can be evaluated (1) in the absence of external substrates on the basis of internal substrate stores (endogenous respiration), (2) in the presence of specific fuel substrates, or (3) in complex culture media.

Adherent cells

The lab of Gregory Brewer developed techniques for high-resolution respirometry with the Oroboros-O2k of neuronal cells attached to a substrate: Attached cells
In most cases, adherent cells grown as a monolayer are detached from the culture plate (scrapping or trypsinizing), centrifuged and resuspended for HRR.

Appropriate cell-count concentration for HRR

The appropriate cell-count concentration is cell type and cell size dependent. The sample concentration should be high enough to obtain a reliable respiratory flux per chamber volume, particularly when mitochondria have low respiratory activity. On the other hand, if volume-specific respiratory flux is too high, re-oxygenations have to be performed frequently disturbing the experimental course. As a general guideline:
  • Maximum flux up to 100 to 300 pmol路s-1路mL-1; this is most practical, yet far higher flux can be measured accurately in the O2k.
  • Minimum flux at 5 pmol路s-1路mL-1 for the state with the lowest flux that will be analyzed, for instance, LEAK state.
ROUTINE respiration per cell may depend on cell concentration:
  • Steinlechner-Maran R, Eberl T, Kunc M, Margreiter R, Gnaiger E (1996) Oxygen dependence of respiration in coupled and uncoupled endothelial cells. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol 271:C2053-61. - 禄Bioblast link芦

The units of the cell count and cell-count concentration

  • The elementary entity of the cell count is the single individual cell or unit cell Uce. The abstract unit of the quantity count is the elementary unit x with the meaning of 'one item'. A count is the product of a number and the elementary entity, thus the cell count is Nce = NUce [x]. A cell count of 1 million cells is designated as Nce = 1路106 x = 1 Mx (M = mega = 106).
  • Cell concentration can be expressed in terms of various quantities, i.e. cell-mass concentration Cmce [g路L-1 = mg路mL-1], cell-volume concentration CVce [mL路L-1 = 碌L路mL-1], or cell-count concentration Cce [Gx路L-1 = Mx路mL-1] (G=109; M=106). A cell-count concentration Cce of 1.0 Mx路mL-1 equals 106 x路mL-1 = 1.0 million cells per milliliter.
Gnaiger MitoFit Preprints 2020.4, BEC 2020.1 doi10.26124bec2020-0001.v1

Fibroblasts, HUVEC, thymocytes, lymphocytes

A cell-count concentration Cce of 1.0 Mx路mL-1 is recommended for many cultured cells, including different cancer or immortalized cell lines. A minimum of 0.1 Mx路mL-1 is required in many cell types.


Isolated hepatocytes are quite large, therefore, <0.1 Mx/mL can be applied.

Human peripheral blood mononuclear cells

2.0 Mx路mL-1 is recommended for isolated PBMC. For more information see: 禄MiPNet21.17芦

Human platelets

100 Mx路mL-1 is recommended for isolated platelets. For more information see: 禄MiPNet21.17芦

Cell viability assessment

Viability assays are used to measure the proportion of viable cells after a potentially traumatic procedure, such as primary disaggregation, cell separation, or cryopreservation. Most viability tests rely on a breakdown in membrane integrity measured by the uptake of a dye to which the cell is normally impermeable (e.g., Trypan Blue) or the release of a dye normally taken up and retained by viable cells (e.g., acridine orange & propidium iodide).

Trypan blue

Trypan blue is a dye used for vital staining. The reactivity of trypan blue is based on the fact that the chromophore is negatively charged and does not interact with the cell nucleus unless the membrane is damaged. Therefore, all cells which exclude the dye are viable.

Acridine orange & propidium iodide

Acridine orange is an intercalating dye that can permeate both live and dead cells. Acridine orange will stain all nucleated cells to generate green fluorescence. Propidium iodide can only enter dead cells with poor membrane integrity so it will stain all dead nucleated cells to generate red fluorescence. Cells stained with both acridine orange and propidium iodide fluoresce red due to quenching, so all live nucleated cells fluoresce green and all dead nucleated cells fluoresce red.

SUITbrowser question: Cell viability test

Plasma membrane intactness of living cells can be assessed by SUIT protocols with the use of substrates that are not plasma membrane permeant. With further chemical permeabilization of the plasma membranes, it is possible to determine the respirometric viability index, assuming that both viable and dead cells contain functional mitochondria.
The SUITbrowser can be used to find SUIT protocols for testing cell viability and other research questions.


Bioblast linkReferenceYear
Gnaiger E (2020) Mitochondrial pathways and respiratory control. An introduction to OXPHOS analysis. 5th ed. Bioenerg Commun 2020.2.
Gnaiger E et al 鈥 MitoEAGLE Task Group (2020) Mitochondrial physiology. Bioenerg Commun 2020.1.
Quality management

Oroboros quality management from the O2k to NextGen-O2k
Gnaiger Erich 2020-09-07

MitoPedia methods: Respirometry 

MitoPedia O2k and high-resolution respirometry: O2k-Open Support 

MitoPedia topics: Sample preparation 

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