The use of the alkaline comet assay with lymphocytes in human biomonitoring studies

Floriane Faust, Fekadu Kassie, Siegfried Knasmüller, Rolf Hasso Boedecker, Marion Mann, Volker Mersch-Sundermann

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

192 Scopus citations


We reviewed the data of 45 alkaline comet assay studies with lymphocytes published during the last three years with the objective of monitoring human exposure to genotoxic agents as a result of occupation, drug treatment, diseases or environmental pollution. The strengths of the studies were that: (i) a lot of data could be obtained within a relatively short period of time in a cost-effective manner, (ii) lymphocytes could be easily collected in a non-invasive way and proved to be good surrogate cells in that they picked up effects caused by agents with different cancer target organs and (iii) a remarkable concordance between comet assay and cytogenetic assay data was proved. However, our analysis revealed some shortcomings of the studies such as: (i) the inclusion of low number of study participants and bias in the number and gender of subjects between control and exposed groups, (ii) lack of qualitative and quantitative exposure data, (iii) lack of consideration of differences in physical activity and diet between control and exposed groups, (iv) difficulty in comparison of the studies due to lack of uniformity in the comet assay procedures such as duration of alkali unwinding and electrophoresis, slide scoring method and the metrics used to assess the extent of DNA damage and (v) controversy in the sensitivity of comet assay since it picked up DNA damage caused by agents such as wood dust, pesticides and hormone preparations which were found to be weak genotoxins or non-genotoxins in other tests, but gave inconsistent results with known mutagens/carcinogens such as tobacco smoke. We feel that for the alkaline comet assay to be an important tool in human biomonitoring studies, serious consideration should be given to the flaws in the design and performance of the assay.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-229
Number of pages21
JournalMutation Research - Reviews in Mutation Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Alkaline comet assay
  • Human biomonitoring
  • Human lymphocytes
  • Single cell gel electrophoresis assay


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