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Compatibility of SYTO 13 and Hoechst 33342 for longitudinal imaging of neuron viability and cell death

Kyle S Hubbard, Ian M Gut, Stephen M Scheeler, Megan E Lyman and Patrick M McNutt*

Author Affiliations

United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, 3100 Ricketts Point Rd, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, 21010, USA

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BMC Research Notes 2012, 5:437  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-5-437

Published: 14 August 2012



Simultaneous use of cell-permeant and impermeant fluorescent nuclear dyes is a common method to study cell viability and cell death progression. Although these assays are usually conducted as end-point studies, time-lapse imaging offers a powerful technique to distinguish temporal changes in cell viability at single-cell resolution. SYTO 13 and Hoechst 33342 are two commonly used cell-permeant nuclear dyes; however their suitability for live imaging has not been well characterized. We compare end-point assays with time-lapse imaging studies over a 6 h period to evaluate the compatibility of these two dyes with longitudinal imaging, using both control neurons and an apoptotic neuron model.


In longitudinal assays of untreated neurons, SYTO 13 addition caused acute necrosis within 3 h, whereas neurons imaged with Hoechst remained viable for at least 6 h. In a staurosporine-induced apoptotic model of neurotoxicity, determinations of the mode of cell death and measurements of nuclear size were identical between longitudinal studies using Hoechst and end-point assays. Alternatively, longitudinal studies using 500 nM or 5 nM SYTO 13 were not consistent with end-point assays.


SYTO 13 is acutely neurotoxic and when used in longitudinal studies, masked end-stage morphologic evidence of apoptotic cell death. In contrast, a single application of Hoechst evoked no evidence of toxicity over a 6 h period, and was consistent with end-point characterizations of cell viability and nuclear morphology. For longitudinal characterization of acute cell death, Hoechst is a superior option.

Nuclear staining; Pyknosis; Embryonic stem cell-derived neurons; Apoptosis; Necrosis