The plaque assay is an essential tool for determining virus titers. The concept is simple: virus infection is restricted to neighboring cells by a semisolid overlay. By counting the number of plaques, the virus titer can be calculated in PFU per ml. A key question is: how many viruses are needed to form a single plaque?
For most animal viruses, one infectious particle is sufficient to initiate infection. This conclusion can be reached by studying the relationship between the number of infectious virus particles and the plaque count. A linear relationship means that one infectious particle can form a plaque. In this case the virus is said to infect cells with one-hit kinetics. This concept is illustrated below. In this figure, the number of plaques produced by a virus with one-hit kinetics or two-hit kinetics is plotted versus the relative concentration of the virus.
There are some examples of viruses with two-hit kinetics: in other words, two different types of viral particles must infect a cell to initiate the infectious cycle. Examples include the genomes of some (+) strand RNA viruses of plants, which consists of two RNA molecules that are packaged in different particles. The dose-response curve of such viruses is parabolic rather than linear.
When a single virus particle can form a plaque, the viral progeny within the plaque are clones. Virus stocks prepared from a single plaque are called plaque purified virus stocks. To prepare such virus stocks, the tip of a small pipette is inserted into the agar overlay above the plaque. The plug of agar is removed and placed in buffer. The viruses within the agar plug move into the buffer, which can then be used to infect cultured cells. To ensure purity, this process is usually repeated at least one more time. Plaque purification is used extensively in virology to establish clonal virus stocks. The ability to prepare clonal virus stocks was an essential development that permitted genetic analysis of viruses.