Immunofluorescence is a technique used for light microscopy with a fluorescence microscope and is used primarily on microbiological samples. This technique uses the specificity of antibodies to their antigen to target fluorescent dyes to specific biomolecule targets within a cell, and therefore allows visualisation of the distribution of the target molecule through the sample. Immunofluorescence is a widely used example of immunostaining and is a specific example of immunohistochemistry that makes use of fluorophores to visualise the location of the antibodies.

Immunofluorescence can be used on tissue sections, cultured cell lines, or individual cells, and may be used to analyse the distribution of proteins, glycans, and small biological and non-biological molecules. Immunofluoresence can be used in combination with other, non-antibody methods of fluorescent staining, for example, use of DAPI to label DNA. Several microscope designs can be used for analysis of immunofluorescence samples; the simplest is the epifluorescence microscope, and the confocal microscope is also widely used. Various super-resolution microscope designs that are capable of much higher resolution can also be used.

Types of immunofluorescence

There are two classes of immunofluorescence techniques, primary (or direct) and secondary (or indirect).

Primary (direct)

Primary, or direct, immunofluorescence uses a single antibody that is chemically linked to a fluorophore. The antibody recognizes the target molecule and binds to it, and the fluorophore it carries can be detected via microscopy. This technique has several advantages over the secondary (or indirect) protocol below because of the direct conjugation of the antibody to the fluorophore. This reduces the number of steps in the staining procedure making the process faster and can reduce background signal by avoiding some issues with antibody cross-reactivity or non-specificity. However, since the number of fluorescent molecules that can be bound to the primary antibody is limited, direct immunofluorescence is less sensitive than indirect immunofluorescence.

Secondary (indirect)

Secondary, or indirect, immunofluorescence uses two antibodies; the unlabeled first (primary) antibody specifically binds the target molecule, and the secondary antibody, which carries the fluorophore, recognises the primary antibody and binds to it. Multiple secondary antibodies can bind a single primary antibody. This provides signal amplification by increasing the number of fluorophore molecules per antigen.This protocol is more complex and time consuming than the primary (or direct) protocol above, but it allows more flexibility because a variety of different secondary antibodies and detection techniques can be used for a given primary antibody.

This protocol is possible because an antibody consists of two parts, a variable region (which recognizes the antigen) and constant region (which makes up the structure of the antibody molecule). It is important to realize that this division is artificial and in reality the antibody molecule is four polypeptide chains: two heavy chains and two light chains. A researcher can generate several primary antibodies that recognize various antigens (have different variable regions), but all share the same constant region. All these antibodies may therefore be recognized by a single secondary antibody. This saves the cost of modifying the primary antibodies to directly carry a fluorophore.

Different primary antibodies with different constant regions are typically generated by raising the antibody in different species. For example, a researcher might create primary antibodies in a goat that recognize several antigens, and then employ dye-coupled rabbit secondary antibodies that recognize the goat antibody constant region ("rabbit anti-goat" antibodies). The researcher may then create a second set of primary antibodies in a mouse that could be recognized by a separate "donkey anti-mouse" secondary antibody. This allows re-use of the difficult-to-make dye-coupled antibodies in multiple experiments.


As with most fluorescence techniques, a significant problem with immunofluorescence is photobleaching. Loss of activity caused by photobleaching can be controlled by reducing the intensity or time-span of light exposure, by increasing the concentration of fluorophores, or by employing more robust fluorophores that are less prone to bleaching (e.g., Alexa Fluors, Seta Fluors, or DyLight Fluors).

Immunofluorescence is only limited to fixed (i.e., dead) cells when structures within the cell are to be visualized because antibodies cannot cross the cell membrane. Proteins in the supernatant or on the outside of the cell membrane can be bound by the antibodies; this allows for living cells to be stained. Depending on the fixative that is being used, proteins of interest might become cross-linked and this could result in either false positive or false negative signals due to non-specific binding.

An alternative approach is using recombinant proteins containing fluorescent protein domains, e.g., green fluorescent protein (GFP). Use of such "tagged" proteins allows determination of their localization in live cells. Even though this seems to be an elegant alternative to immunofluorescence, the cells have to be transfected or transduced with the GFP-tag, and as a consequence they become at least S1 or above organisms that require stricter security standards in a laboratory.