Flow Cytometry for the Masses

Tagging antibodies with rare earth metals instead of fluorescent molecules turns a veteran technique into a high-throughput powerhouse.

Richard P. Grant
Nov 30, 2011

Flow cytometry is the current gold standard for identifying cell types within a mixed population. It identifies cells by their unique combinations of markers, which are tagged with antibodies bound to fluorophores and read by the cytometer. The tool is used in fields ranging from developmental biology to immunology, and even in the diagnosis of diseases such as leukemia.

While traditional flow cytometry is fast—analyzing thousands of cells per second—the number of markers that can be measured in a single experiment is limited by overlap in the color spectra of the fluorophores, allowing between 6 and 10 different colors to be measured in a single experiment.

High-end flow cytometers can detect up to 15 different colors, and can even sort cells for later experiments (FACS analysis), though it is limited to markers on the cell’s surface. “Once you start asking questions about signaling networks, the number of parameters you...

Anal Chem, 81:6813-22, 2009

The CyTOF mass spectrometer measures isotopes using a different mechanism than the magnetic deflector device depicted here. For a description of the instrumentation, see .

Flow Cytometry6-152­–3 years (high-end FC)FACS separates cell populations that can be saved and cultured$400-450,000$2 per 1 million cells using fewer than 6 parameters (approximate)
Mass Cytometry< 1003­–6 monthsCells are destroyed$600,000$3/per 1 million cell test, per antibody

Correction (December 21): The original version of this article incorrectly stated the comparative pricing information for the two instruments. The article has been corrected and The Scientist regrets the error.