Acid Fast Stain- Principle, Reagents, Procedure and Result Interpretation
Ziehl-Neelsen stain, also known as acid-fast stain, is a special staining technique that was developed in the late 19th century by two German microbiologists, Franz Ziehl and Friedrich Neelsen. It is used to identify bacteria that belong to the genus Mycobacterium, which includes the causative agents of tuberculosis, leprosy and other diseases. These bacteria are called acid-fast because they retain the primary stain even after being treated with acid alcohol, unlike most other bacteria that are easily decolorized. This property is due to the presence of a thick and waxy layer of mycolic acid in their cell wall, which makes them resistant to many conventional staining methods and antimicrobial agents.
The main objective of acid fast stain is to differentiate bacteria into acid fast group and non-acid fast groups. Acid fast bacteria are those that retain the primary stain, carbolfuchsin, even after treatment with acid alcohol. Non-acid fast bacteria are those that lose the primary stain and take up the counterstain, methylene blue.
Acid fast stain is based on the ability of some bacteria to retain a primary dye (carbol-fuchsin) even after being treated with a strong decolorizing agent (acid-alcohol). These bacteria are called acid-fast because they resist decolorization by acids. The most common acid-fast bacteria are those belonging to the genus Mycobacterium, which includes the causative agents of tuberculosis and leprosy.
The Ziehl-Neelsen stain requires three main reagents: a primary stain, a decolorization solution, and a counterstain. These reagents are used to differentiate acid-fast bacteria from non-acid-fast bacteria based on their ability to retain the primary stain after decolorization.
Primary Stain: Carbol-fuchsin
Carbol-fuchsin is a red dye that contains phenol and basic fuchsin. Phenol acts as a mordant that enhances the penetration of the dye into the bacterial cell wall. Basic fuchsin is a cationic dye that binds to the negatively charged components of the cell wall, such as peptidoglycan and mycolic acid. Mycolic acid is a waxy substance that is present in the cell wall of acid-fast bacteria, such as Mycobacterium and Nocardia. It makes the cell wall impermeable to most stains and resistant to decolorization by acid-alcohol.
The decolorization solution is used to remove the excess primary stain from the non-acid-fast bacteria and the background material. It consists of either acid-alcohol or sulfuric acid. Acid-alcohol is a mixture of ethanol (95%) and hydrochloric acid (3%). Sulfuric acid (25%) is an alternative decolorizing reagent that does not contain alcohol. Both reagents act by dissolving the lipid components of the cell wall and extracting the dye from the non-acid-fast bacteria.
Counterstain: Methylene blue
Methylene blue is a blue dye that stains the non-acid-fast bacteria and the background material after decolorization. It is an anionic dye that binds to the positively charged components of the cell wall, such as proteins and nucleic acids. Methylene blue also acts as a contrast agent that makes the red-colored acid-fast bacteria more visible under the microscope.
- Prepare and fix the specimen smear prior to staining.
- Place a small strip of blotting or filter paper over the top of the specimen.
- Cover the filter paper with the primary stain, carbolfuchsin.
- Remove the filter paper and rinse the slide with water until the solution runs clear.
- Run acid-alcohol decolorizer over the slide for approximately 10 to 15 seconds.
- Rinse the slide with water.
- Cover the smear with the secondary or counterstain, methylene blue, for 1 minute.
- Gently rinse the slide with water.
- Blot the slide dry with bibulous paper.
The result of the acid fast stain depends on the ability of the bacteria to retain the primary stain (carbolfuchsin) after decolorization with acid alcohol. The bacteria that retain the carbolfuchsin are called acid fast and appear bright red to intensive purple under the microscope. The bacteria that lose the carbolfuchsin and take up the counterstain (methylene blue) are called non-acid fast and appear blue.
Acid fast: Bright red to intensive purple
Acid fast bacteria are those that retain the primary stain, carbolfuchsin, even after treatment with acid alcohol. They appear as bright red to intensive purple rods under the microscope.
Non-acid fast: Blue color
Non-acid fast bacteria are those that do not retain the primary stain, carbolfuchsin, after decolorization with acid-alcohol. They are easily decolorized and take up the counterstain, methylene blue, which gives them a blue color under the microscope.
- The acid fast stain is not a definitive test for identifying acid fast bacteria, as some non-acid fast bacteria may also retain the primary stain due to their cell wall structure or presence of lipids.
- The acid fast stain may not detect all cases of tuberculosis or other mycobacterial infections, as the number of acid fast bacilli in the specimen may be too low to be visible under the microscope.
- The acid fast stain requires careful preparation and execution of the staining procedure, as any errors or variations may affect the quality and accuracy of the results.
- The acid fast stain is not suitable for staining spores, capsules, flagella or other cellular structures, as they are not affected by the primary or secondary stains.
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