Cell-based assays are often used for screening collections of compounds to determine if the test molecules have effects on cell proliferation or show direct cytotoxic effects that eventually lead to cell death. Cell-based assays also are widely used for measuring receptor binding and a variety of signal transduction events that may involve the expression of genetic reporters, trafficking of cellular components, or monitoring organelle function. Regardless of the type of cell-based assay being used, it is important to know how many viable cells are remaining at the end of the experiment. There are a variety of assay methods that can be used to estimate the number of viable eukaryotic cells. This chapter will provide an overview of some of the major methods used in multi-well formats where data are recorded using a plate reader. The methods described include: tetrazolium reduction, resazurin reduction, protease markers, and ATP detection. Methods for flow cytometry and high content imaging may be covered in different chapters in the future.
The tetrazolium reduction, resazurin reduction, and protease activity assays measure some aspect of general metabolism or an enzymatic activity as a marker of viable cells. All of these assays require incubation of a reagent with a population of viable cells to convert a substrate to a colored or fluorescent product that can be detected with a plate reader. Under most standard culture conditions, incubation of the substrate with viable cells will result in generating a signal that is proportional to the number of viable cells present. When cells die, they rapidly lose the ability to convert the substrate to product. That difference provides the basis for many of the commonly used cell viability assays