Direct fluorescent antibody test

The dFA test is based on the observation that animals infected by rabies virus have rabies virus proteins (antigen) present in their tissues. Because rabies is present in nervous tissue (and not blood like many other viruses), the ideal tissue to test for rabies antigen is brain. The most important part of a dFA test is flouresecently-labeled anti-rabies antibody. When labeled antibody is incubated with rabies-suspect brain tissue, it will bind to rabies antigen. Unbound antibody can be washed away and areas where antigen is present can be visualized as fluorescent-apple-green areas using a fluorescence microscope. If rabies virus is absent there will be no staining.

Microscope image of nervous tissue with positive dFA

Positive dFA

Microscope image of nervous tissue with negative dFA

Negative dFA

Antigen detection by dFA

The rabies antibody used for the dFA test is primarily directed against the nucleoprotein (antigen) of the virus (see The Virus section on viral structure). Rabies virus replicates in the cytoplasm of cells, and infected cells may contain large round or oval inclusions containing collections of nucleoprotein (N) or smaller collections of antigen that appear as dust-like fluorescent particles if stained by the dFA procedure.