Large numbers of microbiological samples are analysed annually using traditional culture-based techniques. These techniques take hours to days to yield a result, are tedious and are not suitable for non-culturable microorganisms. Further, culture-based techniques do not provide real-time information on the physiological status of the organism in situ which is important in the industrial manufacture of many microbial products. Flow cytometry offers the prospect of real-time microbial analysis of individual microorganisms, without dependency on microbial culture. However, flow cytometry has not been extensively used as a tool for routine microbial analysis. This has been mainly due to the high cost and complexity of instrumentation, the need for trained flow cytometrists and the lack of assay kits with appropriate biological reagents for specific applications. Many modern instruments are now relatively simple to operate, due to improvements in the user-interface, and no longer need a specialist operator. However, most cytometers are still reliant on analogue technology first developed 20- 30 years ago. The incorporation of modern, solid state opto-electronics combined with micro-fabrication and digital signal processing technology offers the prospect of simple to use, low cost and robust instruments suitable for microbial analyses. Advances are being made in the development of a range of biological reagents and these are now being formulated into simple to use kits for microbiological applications. Currently, these kits are largely restricted to simple analyses, for example to assay for total or viable numbers of microorganisms present. However, technologies are available to selectively label specific types of microorganisms. For example, fluorescent antibodies can be used to label microorganisms according to expression of particular antigens, fluorescent in situ hybridisation to label according to phylogeny and fluorogenic enzymatic substrates to label according to expression of specific enzyme activities. Reagents are also available that stain viruses sufficiently brightly to enable their direct detection in environments such as sea water. Microorganisms need to be detected in a variety of different matrices (e.g., water, mud, food, and beverages) and these matrices may be highly variable in nature (e.g., tap water compared to river water). Many matrices have high background autofluorescence (e.g., algae and minerals in water samples) or may bind non- specifically to the fluorescent biological reagents used (e.g., protein micelles in milk). Formulation of biological reagents and sample pre- treatments are critical to the development of suitable microbiological assays. Here, developments in instrumentation and biological reagents for microbiological applications are reviewed with specific examples from environmental or industrial microbiology. The broader considerations for the development of microbial assays for flow cytometry are also considered. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.