The still poorly explored world of microbial functioning is about to be uncovered by a combined application of old and new technologies. Bacteria, especially, are still in the dark with respect to their phylogenetic affiliations as well as their metabolic capabilities and functions. However, with the advent of sophisticated flow cytometric and cell sorting technologies in microbiological labs, there is now the possibility to gain this knowledge at the single-cell level without cumbersome cultivation approaches. Cytometry also facilitates the understanding of physiological diversity in seemingly likewise acting populations. Both individuality and diversity lead to the complex and concerted actions of microbial consortia. This review provides an overview of the state of the art in the field. It deals with the handling of microorganisms from the very beginning (i.e. sampling, and detachment and fixation procedures) and goes on to discuss the pitfalls and problems in analysing cells without any further treatment. If information cannot be gained by specific staining procedures, phylogenetic technologies, transcriptomic and proteomic approaches may be options for achieving advanced insights. All in all, flow cytometry will be a mediator technology to gain a deeper insight into the heterogeneity of populations and the functioning of microbial communities.
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