There are two major types of growth media: those used for cell culture, which use specific cell types derived from plants or animals, and microbiological culture, which are used for growing microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast. The most common growth media for microorganisms are nutrient broths and agar plates; specialized media are sometimes required for microorganism and cell culture growth. Some organisms, termed fastidious organisms, require specialized environments due to complex nutritional requirements. Viruses, for example, are obligatory intracellular parasites and require a growth medium composed of living cells.
The differences between growth media used for cell culture and those used for microbiological culture are because cells derived from whole organisms and grown in culture often cannot grow without the addition of, for instance, hormones or growth factors which usually occur in vivo. In the case of animal cells, this difficulty is often addressed by the addition of blood serum to the medium. In the case of microorganisms, there are no such limitations, as they are often unicellular organisms. One other major difference is that animal cells in culture are often grown on a flat surface to which they attach, and the medium is provided in a liquid form, which covers the cells. In contrast, bacteria such as Escherichia coli may be grown on solid media or in liquid media.
An important distinction between growth media types is that of defined versus undefined media. A defined medium will have known quantities of all ingredients. For microorganisms, they consist of providing trace elements and vitamins required by the microbe and especially a defined carbon source 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 or casein hydrolysate, which consist 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.
A good example of a growth medium is the wort used to make beer. The wort contains all the nutrients required for yeast growth, and under anaerobic conditions, alcohol is produced. When the fermentation process is complete, the combination of medium and dormant microbes, now beer, is ready for consumption.
This is an undefined medium because the amino acid source contains a variety of compounds with the exact composition being unknown. Nutrient 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.
Defined media (also known as chemically defined media)
Minimal medium typically contains:
Supplementary minimal media are a type of minimal media that also contains a single selected agent, usually an amino acid or a sugar. This supplementation allows for the culturing of specific lines of auxotrophic recombinants.
Selective media are used for the growth of only select 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. Media lacking an amino acid such as proline in conjunction with E. coli unable to synthesize it were commonly used by geneticists before the emergence of genomics to map bacterial chromosomes.
Selective growth media are also used in cell culture to ensure the survival or proliferation of cells with certain properties, such as antibiotic resistance or the ability to synthesize a certain metabolite. Normally, the presence of a specific gene or an allele of a gene confers upon the cell the ability to grow in the selective medium. In such cases, the gene is termed a marker.
Selective growth media for eukaryotic cells commonly contain neomycin to select cells that have been successfully transfected with a plasmid carrying the neomycin resistance gene as a marker. Gancyclovir is an exception to the rule as it is used to specifically kill cells that carry its respective marker, the Herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase (HSV TK).
Some examples of selective media include:
Examples of differential media include:
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