Simple and Differential Stains: Definition and Examples

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  • 0:07 A Microscope for Christmas?
  • 1:01 Stains
  • 1:53 Simple Staining Technique
  • 3:07 Negative Staining Technique
  • 4:08 Differential Staining…
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

Observing tiny bacteria under the microscope is not as easy as it sounds. In this lesson, we will examine several staining techniques used to color bacteria, enhancing their visibility.

A Microscope for Christmas

It is finally Christmas morning! This year you know you're going to get what you asked for. You didn't go ludicrous and ask for a pony to share your New York City apartment. You didn't go techno-shallow and ask for a new smart phone 12, now complete with a tiny microwave for nuking pizza rolls while texting. This year, you asked for a compound light microscope - a good one, with 1000X magnification, oil immersion, and a digital camera. Bacteria are everywhere, and, hopefully, you finally get to look at them!

Success! You are now the proud owner of a shiny new microscope. Forgetting about the rest of your presents, you swab the bottom of your 2-year-old running shoes, roll the grime across a new glass slide, and quickly start scanning for microbes. But, you can't find anything. There must be bacteria on your shoes. After all, bacteria are everywhere - everywhere except your shoes, apparently.


In actuality, your slide is likely teeming with bacteria. In colonies made up of millions of cells, bacteria can be a wide range of colors and textures. But, the vast majority of individual bacterial cells are nearly completely colorless. The cell wall and cytoplasm of one individual bacterium is simply not going to be visible enough for you to see, even with your expensive light microscope. What you need is something to enhance the visibility of that one bacterium. What you need is a stain.

A stain is a chemical compound used to enhance the visibility of a microscopic object or organism. But, not all stains are created equal. The type of stain and the technique you use depends on what you're looking at, what structure you're looking for, and what you want the staining procedure to accomplish. Let's take a quick look at a few of the more common categories of staining techniques.

Simple Staining Technique

In a simple staining technique, a basic, cationic dye is flooded across a sample, adding color to the cells. Before we move on, let's define the word cationic. A cation is simply a positively charged ion. The molecules that make up basic dyes have a positive charge. This is important because the cell wall and cytoplasm of bacterial cells have a negative charge. The positively charged dye is attracted to the negatively charged cells, enhancing the ability of the stain to stick to and color the cells. Now, those nearly colorless cells should pop off the slide in any number of colors.

It is important to note that before a sample can be stained with a simple stain, it must be heat fixed to the slide. During heat fixation, a glass slide is waved over an open flame. This kills the bacteria, attaches the cells to the slide, and enhances the stain uptake. This process makes staining more effective but can damage or distort the cells, changing their appearance from a truly natural, free-living state.

Methylene blue is a classic example of a simple stain. This blue stain will color all cells blue, making them stand out against the bright background of the light microscope. Notice below how the background remains generally clear, while the bacterial cells are a deep blue.

Methylene blue stains all cells blue.
simple bacterial stain

Negative Staining Technique

In a negative staining technique, an acidic, anionic dye is mixed with a cell sample. The dye changes the color of the background, not the cells, causing the cells to stand out. This process can be considered the opposite of simple staining. An anion is a negatively charged ion, therefore an anionic dye has a negative charge. When the negatively charged dye is added to the negatively charged cells, the two repel each other, meaning they push apart. When the mixture is placed on a slide and air dried, what results is a darkly dyed background, surrounding clear, unstained cells. The transparent cells are now highly visible but are unaffected by direct contact with the dye and distortion from heat fixing, which is not needed in a negative stain.

India ink is the classic example of a negative stain. It will turn the background a dark brown to black, leaving the clear, bright cells unstained and highly visible. Below are cells of the fungal pathogen Cryptococcus. The India ink has colored the background brown, leaving the cells their natural color.

India ink turns the background a dark brown to black color.
slide with negative bacterial staining

Differential Staining Technique

Simple stains and negative stains are great for looking at cells, but they will stain nearly all cells equally. What if you have a mixed sample, meaning more than one type of bacteria is present, or suspect your pure culture is contaminated? It would be nice if you could stain some cells, but not others, or if different kinds of bacteria would look different.

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