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6.3A: Culture Media

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    • Classify culture media

    Culture medium or growth medium is a liquid or gel designed to support the growth of microorganisms. There are different types of media suitable for growing different types of cells. Here, we will discuss microbiological cultures used for growing microbes, such as bacteria or yeast.


    These are the most common growth media, although specialized media are sometimes required for microorganism and cell culture growth. Some organisms, termed fastidious organisms, need specialized environments due to complex nutritional requirements. Viruses, for example, are obligate intracellular parasites and require a growth medium containing living cells. Many human microbial pathogens also require the use of human cells or cell lysates to grow on a media.

    The most common growth media nutrient broths (liquid nutrient medium) or LB medium (Lysogeny Broth) are liquid. These are often mixed with agar and poured into Petri dishes to solidify. These agar plates provide a solid medium on which microbes may be cultured. They remain solid, as very few bacteria are able to decompose agar. Many microbes can also be grown in liquid cultures comprised of liquid nutrient media without agar.


    Microbial pathogen growing on blood-agar plate: Red blood cells are used to make an agar plate. Different pathogens that can use red blood cells to grow are shown on these plates. On the left is staphylococcus and the right streptococcus.


    This is an important distinction between growth media types. A defined medium will have known quantities of all ingredients. For microorganisms, it provides trace elements and vitamins required by the microbe and especially a defined carbon and nitrogen source. Glucose or glycerol are often used as carbon sources, and ammonium salts or nitrates as inorganic nitrogen sources. An undefined medium has some complex ingredients, such as yeast extract, which consists of a mixture of many, many chemical species in unknown proportions. Undefined media are sometimes chosen based on price and sometimes by necessity – some microorganisms have never been cultured on defined media.

    There are many different types of media that can be used to grow specific microbes, and even promote certain cellular processes; such as wort, the medium which is the growth media for the yeast that makes beer. Without wort in certain conditions, fermentation cannot occur and the beer will not contain alcohol or be carbonated (bubbly).


    Nutrient media – A source of amino acids and nitrogen (e.g., beef, yeast extract). This is an undefined medium because the amino acid source contains a variety of compounds with the exact composition being unknown. These media contain all the elements that most bacteria need for growth and are non-selective, so they are used for the general cultivation and maintenance of bacteria kept in laboratory-culture collections.

    Minimal media – Media that contains the minimum nutrients possible for colony growth, generally without the presence of amino acids, and are often used by microbiologists and geneticists to grow “wild type” microorganisms. These media can also be used to select for or against the growth of specific microbes. Usually a fair amount of information must be known about the microbe to determine its minimal media requirements.

    Selective media – Used for the growth of only selected microorganisms. For example, if a microorganism is resistant to a certain antibiotic, such as ampicillin or tetracycline, then that antibiotic can be added to the medium in order to prevent other cells, which do not possess the resistance, from growing.

    Differential media – Also known as indicator media, are used to distinguish one microorganism type from another growing on the same media. This type of media uses the biochemical characteristics of a microorganism growing in the presence of specific nutrients or indicators (such as neutral red, phenol red, eosin y, or methylene blue) added to the medium to visibly indicate the defining characteristics of a microorganism. This type of media is used for the detection and identification of microorganisms.

    These few examples of general media types provide some indication only; there are a myriad of different types of media that can be used to grow and control microbes.

    Key Points

    • Culture media contains the nutrients needed to sustain a microbe.
    • Culture media can vary in many ingredients allowing the media to select for or against microbes.
    • Glucose or glycerol are often used as carbon sources, and ammonium salts or nitrates as inorganic nitrogen sources in culture media.

    Key Terms

    • culture: The process of growing a bacterial or other biological entity in an artificial medium.
    • lysogeny broth: Lysogeny broth (LB) is a nutritionally-rich medium; primarily used for the growth of bacteria.