I can't find a definition for 'refractile' (not 'refractory', and not explicitly in an optical context).

As in:

A tumour cell phenotype features increased proliferation, anchorage- and growth factor-independenth growth and ‘refractile’ cell morphology

It's not in any of the dictionaries I can access online, nor in the Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Any help would be appreciated, thanks.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure, but i think it refers to an actually refracting activity of those cells in phase contrast microscopy. For example, (as you can see here ) the nerve cell bodies are refractile. $\endgroup$
    – Serena
    Apr 11, 2015 at 10:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, that's specifically of the 'lateral periphery'. This just says 'cell morphology', Actually I think it means they grow to a higher density $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2015 at 14:59

2 Answers 2


From the Biology Online Dictionary, refractile refers to:

... the ability of cellular granules to refract or scatter light.

Tumor cells can be more "dense", as they are usually rapidly dividing, and so need extra ribosomes to maintain protein production, may have a higher DNA/RNA content reflecting increased transcription and duplication, more mitochondria to power the cells, etc. This can alter the refractive index of a suspension of tumor cells as compared to organ-matched normal cells, for example.

  • $\begingroup$ Essentially, yes. Refractile would be of the cell itself rather than describing the solution, and they've overridden existing limits on growth (growth factor dependence etc.) It's just a term in physics, not a biological one related to granules. $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2015 at 20:33

Please note that this explanation may not be the actual physics definition, but it will help you to understand the concept of ‘refractile’ cell morphology.....

From the statement below by www.brittanica.com it appears that light is both partially reflected by & partially refracted or "transmitted" (think absorbed) into the object it is hitting. (Technically transmission is NOT absorption, but for this purpose it's easier to think of it as being absorbed by the cell/cell parts).

So when light hits the cells/cellular parts in a scan, some of the light is reflected back and some of the light is "absorbed" by the cell/cell parts. The amount of light "absorbed" is variable for each cellular component, and therefore, the amount of light reflected back is also variable.

In the scan or microscope, we actually "see" the reflected light. Not the refracted (absorbed) light and because the light reflected is variable, we are able to "see" the different components of the cell (i.e the different amounts of light reflected by the various parts).

So the statement ‘refractile’ cell morphology means that the cell has components which absorbs light at variable amounts and therefore, also reflects light at different amounts. Essentially, you are able to "see" the cell morphology & its differences because it refracts (absorbs) some light and reflects the rest.

Hope this helps get the concept. =)

"When a ray of light is incident upon a plane surface separating two mediums (e.g., air and glass), it is partly reflected (thrown back into the original medium) and partly refracted (transmitted into the other medium)." https://www.britannica.com/science/radiation/The-structure-and-properties-of-matter#ref398785


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .