What is Gram staining?

Gram staining is a method used to differentiate two groups of bacteria based solely on the construction of their cell walls, using dye. Hans Gram was the guy who developed it, and staining means, well, staining. With a dye called gentian violet – a substance that is now used to treat some yeast or bacterial conditions, as it has an antibacterial, antifungal action. This means it can only be used to identify dead bacteria (because it kills them).

Gram staining means to stain bacteria with a dye then look at them under a microscope to see who they really are. One sort comes up red, while the other sort comes up violet. This differentiates the bacteria. Some bacteria common to vaginal infections are gram-positive, but hard to detect using this method because its external cell layer is too thin.

Gram positive and Gram negative

  1. Gram-positive bacteria stain violet because their cell walls have a thick layer of special stuff (peptidoglycan) which holds on to the dye after decolourisation
  2. Gram-negative bacteria stain red because their cell wall is thinner, and does not hold the dye as well after decolourisation, and are instead stained by the safranin in the final process.

How is Gram staining carried out?

The staining steps are thus:

  1. Staining with water-soluble dye (crystal violet/gentian violet) is carried out.
  2. Gram’s iodine solution is added and forms a complex between the crystal violet and the iodine.
  3. Decolourisation is performed – alcohol or acetone is added, which shrinks and tightens the peptidoglycan layer, and the large crystal violet-iodine complex cannot penetrate. It is then trapped in the cell in gram-positive bacteria.
  4. If the bacteria is gram-negative, the outer membrane is degraded and the thinner peptidoglycan layer cannot retain the crystal violet-iodine complex, and the colour is lost.
  5. Counterstaining (typically with safranin) is performed, which stains it red. The safranin is lighter than the crystal violet, and does not disrupt the colour in gram-positive cells, but gram-negative cells are stained red.