Nutritional Requirements for Bacterial Growth


On this MacConkey agar plate, the lactose-fermenter E. coli colonies are bright pink. Serratia marcescens, which does not ferment lactose, forms a cream-colored streak on the tan medium. (credit: American Society for Microbiology)

OpenStax Microbiology

The number of available media to grow bacteria is considerable. Some media are considered general all-purpose media and support growth of a large variety of organisms. A prime example of an all-purpose medium is tryptic soy broth (TSB). Specialized media are used in the identification of bacteria and are supplemented with dyes, pH indicators, or antibiotics. One type, enriched media, contains growth factors, vitamins, and other essential nutrients to promote the growth of fastidious organisms, organisms that cannot make certain nutrients and require them to be added to the medium. When the complete chemical composition of a medium is known, it is called a chemically defined medium. For example, in EZ medium, all individual chemical components are identified and the exact amounts of each is known. In complex media, which contain extracts and digests of yeasts, meat, or plants, the precise chemical composition of the medium is not known. Amounts of individual components are undetermined and variable. Nutrient broth, tryptic soy broth, and brain heart infusion, are all examples of complex media.

Media that inhibit the growth of unwanted microorganisms and support the growth of the organism of interest by supplying nutrients and reducing competition are called selective media. An example of a selective medium is MacConkey agar. It contains bile salts and crystal violet, which interfere with the growth of many gram-positive bacteria and favor the growth of gram-negative bacteria, particularly the Enterobacteriaceae. These species are commonly named enterics, reside in the intestine, and are adapted to the presence of bile salts. The enrichment cultures foster the preferential growth of a desired microorganism that represents a fraction of the organisms present in an inoculum. For example, if we want to isolate bacteria that break down crude oil, hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria, sequential subculturing in a medium that supplies carbon only in the form of crude oil will enrich the cultures with oil-eating bacteria. The differential media make it easy to distinguish colonies of different bacteria by a change in the color of the colonies or the color of the medium. Color changes are the result of end products created by interaction of bacterial enzymes with differential substrates in the medium or, in the case of hemolytic reactions, the lysis of red blood cells in the medium. In the image above, the differential fermentation of lactose can be observed on MacConkey agar. The lactose fermenters produce acid, which turns the medium and the colonies of strong fermenters hot pink. The medium is supplemented with the pH indicator neutral red, which turns to hot pink at low pH. Selective and differential media can be combined and play an important role in the identification of bacteria by biochemical methods.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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