Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

, Volume 73, Issue 2, pp 169–187 | Cite as

Viability and activity in readily culturable bacteria: a review and discussion of the practical issues

  • Douglas B. Kell
  • Arseny S. Kaprelyants
  • Dieter H. Weichart
  • Colin R. Harwood
  • Michael R. Barer


In microbiology the terms ‘viability’ and ‘culturability’ are often equated. However, in recent years the apparently self-contradictory expression ‘viable-but-nonculturable’ (‘VBNC’) has been applied to cells with various and often poorly defined physiological attributes but which, nonetheless, could not be cultured by methods normally appropriate to the organism concerned. These attributes include apparent cell integrity, the possession of some form of measurable cellular activity and the apparent capacity to regain culturability. We review the evidence relating to putative VBNC cells and stress our view that most of the reports claiming a return to culturability have failed to exclude the regrowth of a limited number of cells which had never lost culturability. We argue that failure to differentiate clearly between use of the terms ‘viability’ and ‘culturability’ in an operational versus a conceptual sense is fuelling the current debate, and conclude with a number of proposals that are designed to help clarify the major issues involved. In particular, we suggest an alternative operational terminology that replaces ‘VBNC’ with expressions that are internally consistent.

viability culturability anabiosis cryptobiosis dormancy metabolic activity thanatology 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Douglas B. Kell
    • 1
  • Arseny S. Kaprelyants
    • 1
    • 2
  • Dieter H. Weichart
    • 1
  • Colin R. Harwood
    • 3
  • Michael R. Barer
    • 3
  1. 1.Edward Llwyd Building, Institute of Biological SciencesUniversity of WalesAberystwythU.K
  2. 2.Russian Academy of SciencesBach Institute of BiochemistryMOSCOWRussia
  3. 3.Department of Microbiologythe Medical School, Framlington PlaceNewcastle upon Tyne

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