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17.2: Temperature

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    Microorganisms have a minimum, an optimum, and a maximum temperature for growth. Temperatures below the minimum usually have a static action on microorganisms. They inhibit microbial growth by slowing down metabolism but do not necessarily kill the organism. Temperatures above the maximum usually have a cidal action, since they denature microbial enzymes and other proteins. Temperature is a very common and effective way of controlling microorganisms.

    1. High Temperature

    Vegetative microorganisms can generally be killed at temperatures from 50°C to 70°C with moist heat. Bacterial endospores, however, are very resistant to heat and extended exposure to much higher temperature is necessary for their destruction. High temperature may be applied as either moist heat or dry heat. The lowest temperature at which all microorganisms in a liquid suspension will be killed in 10 minutes is referred to as the thermal death point.

    a. Moist heat

    Moist heat is generally more effective than dry heat for killing microorganisms because of its ability to penetrate microbial cells. Moist heat kills microorganisms by denaturing their proteins (causes proteins and enzymes to lose their three-dimensional functional shape). It also may melt lipids in cytoplasmic membranes.

    1. Autoclaving

    Autoclaving employs steam under pressure. Water normally boils at 100°C; however, when put under pressure, water boils at a higher temperature. During autoclaving, the materials to be sterilized are placed under 15 pounds per square inch of pressure in a pressure-cooker type of apparatus. When placed under 15 pounds of pressure, the boiling point of water is raised to 121°C, a temperature sufficient to kill bacterial endospores.

    The time the material is left in the autoclave varies with the nature and amount of material being sterilized. Given sufficient time (generally 15-45 minutes), autoclaving is cidal for both vegetative organisms and endospores, and is the most common method of sterilization for materials not damaged by heat.

    2. Boiling water

    Boiling water (100°C) will generally kill vegetative cells after about 10 minutes of exposure. However, certain viruses, such as the hepatitis viruses, may survive exposure to boiling water for up to 30 minutes, and endospores of certain Clostridium and Bacillus species may survive even hours of boiling.

    b. Dry heat

    Dry heat kills microorganisms through a process of protein oxidation rather than protein coagulation. Examples of dry heat include:

    1. Hot air sterilization

    Microbiological ovens employ very high dry temperatures: 171°C for 1 hour; 160°C for 2 hours or longer; or 121°C for 16 hours or longer depending on the volume. They are generally used only for sterilizing glassware, metal instruments, and other inert materials like oils and powders that are not damaged by excessive temperature.

    2. Incineration

    Incinerators are used to destroy disposable or expendable materials by burning. We also sterilize our inoculating loops by incineration.

    c. Pasteurization

    Pasteurization is the mild heating of milk and other materials to kill particular spoilage organisms or pathogens. It does not, however, kill all organisms. Milk is usually pasteurized by heating to 71°C for at least 15 seconds in the flash method or 63-66°C for 30 minutes in the holding method.

    2. Low Temperature

    Low temperature inhibits microbial growth by slowing down microbial metabolism. Examples include refrigeration and freezing. Refrigeration at 5°C slows the growth of microorganisms and keeps food fresh for a few days. Freezing at -10°C stops microbial growth, but generally does not kill microorganisms, and keeps food fresh for several months.

    Contributors and Attributions


    This page titled 17.2: Temperature is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gary Kaiser.

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