Measuring Microbial Mutation Rates with the Fluctuation Assay

Rok Krašovec, Huw Richards, Guillaume Gomez, Danna R. Gifford, Adrien Mazoyer, Christopher G. Knight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

768 Downloads (Pure)


Fluctuation assays are widely used for estimating mutation rates in microbes growing in liquid environments. Many cultures are each inoculated with a few thousand cells, each sensitive to a selective marker that can be assayed phenotypically. These parallel cultures grow for many generations in the absence of the phenotypic marker. A subset of cultures is used to estimate the total number of cells at risk of mutations (i.e., the population size at the end of the growth period, or Nt). The remaining cultures are plated onto the selective agar. The distribution of observed resistant mutants among parallel cultures is then used to estimate the expected number of mutational events, m, using a mathematical model. Dividing m by Nt gives the estimate of the mutation rate per locus per generation. The assay has three critical aspects: the chosen phenotypic marker, the chosen volume of parallel cultures, and ensuring that the surface on the selective agar is completely dry before the incubation. The assay is relatively inexpensive and only needs standard laboratory equipment. It is also less laborious than alternative approaches, such as mutation accumulation and single-cell assays. The assay works on organisms that go through many generations rapidly and it depends on assumptions about the fitness effects of markers and cell death. However, recently developed tools and theoretical studies mean these issues can now be addressed analytically. The assay allows mutation rate estimation of different phenotypic markers in cells with different genotypes growing in isolation or in a community. By conducting multiple assays in parallel, assays can be used to study how an organism's environmental context affects spontaneous mutation rate, which is crucial for understanding antimicrobial resistance, carcinogenesis, aging, and evolution.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of visualized experiments : JoVE
Issue number153
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2019


Dive into the research topics of 'Measuring Microbial Mutation Rates with the Fluctuation Assay'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this