The Cultivation of Viruses


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(a) Flasks like this may be used to culture human or animal cells for viral culturing. (b) These plates contain bacteriophage T4 grown on an Escherichia coli lawn. Clear plaques are visible where host bacterial cells have been lysed. Viral titers increase on the plates to the left. (credit a: modification of work by National Institutes of Health; credit b: modification of work by American Society for Microbiology)

OpenStax Microbiology

Viruses can be grown in vivo (within a whole living organism, plant, or animal) or in vitro (outside a living organism in cells in an artificial environment, such as a test tube, cell culture flask, or agar plate). Bacteriophages can be grown in the presence of a dense layer of bacteria (also called a bacterial lawn) grown in a 0.7 % soft agar in a Petri dish or flat (horizontal) flask. The agar concentration is decreased from the 1.5% usually used in culturing bacteria. The soft 0.7% agar allows the bacteriophages to easily diffuse through the medium. For lytic bacteriophages, lysing of the bacterial hosts can then be readily observed when a clear zone called a plaque is detected. As the phage kills the bacteria, many plaques are observed among the cloudy bacterial lawn.

Animal viruses require cells within a host animal or tissue-culture cells derived from an animal. Animal virus cultivation is important for 1) identification and diagnosis of pathogenic viruses in clinical specimens, 2) production of vaccines, and 3) basic research studies. In vivo host sources can be a developing embryo in an embryonated bird’s egg (e.g., chicken, turkey) or a whole animal. For example, most of the influenza vaccine manufactured for annual flu vaccination programs is cultured in hens’ eggs.

The embryo or host animal serves as an incubator for viral replication. Location within the embryo or host animal is important. Many viruses have a tissue tropism, and must therefore be introduced into a specific site for growth. Within an embryo, target sites include the amniotic cavity, the chorioallantoic membrane, or the yolk sac. Viral infection may damage tissue membranes, producing lesions called pox; disrupt embryonic development; or cause the death of the embryo.

(a) The cells within chicken eggs are used to culture different types of viruses. (b) Viruses can be replicated in various locations within the egg, including the chorioallantoic membrane, the amniotic cavity, and the yolk sac. (credit a: modification of work by “Chung Hoang”/YouTube)

For in vitro studies, various types of cells can be used to support the growth of viruses. A primary cell culture is freshly prepared from animal organs or tissues. Cells are extracted from tissues by mechanical scraping or mincing to release cells or by an enzymatic method using trypsin or collagenase to break up tissue and release single cells into suspension. Because of anchorage-dependence requirements, primary cell cultures require a liquid culture medium in a Petri dish or tissue-culture flask so cells have a solid surface such as glass or plastic for attachment and growth. Primary cultures usually have a limited life span. When cells in a primary culture undergo mitosis and a sufficient density of cells is produced, cells come in contact with other cells. When this cell-to-cell-contact occurs, mitosis is triggered to stop. This is called contact inhibition and it prevents the density of the cells from becoming too high. To prevent contact inhibition, cells from the primary cell culture must be transferred to another vessel with fresh growth medium. This is called a secondary cell culture. Periodically, cell density must be reduced by pouring off some cells and adding fresh medium to provide space and nutrients to maintain cell growth. In contrast to primary cell cultures, continuous cell lines, usually derived from transformed cells or tumors, are often able to be subcultured many times or even grown indefinitely (in which case they are called immortal). Continuous cell lines may not exhibit anchorage dependency (they will grow in suspension) and may have lost their contact inhibition. As a result, continuous cell lines can grow in piles or lumps resembling small tumor growths.

Cells for culture are prepared by separating them from their tissue matrix. (a) Primary cell cultures grow attached to the surface of the culture container. Contact inhibition slows the growth of the cells once they become too dense and begin touching each other. At this point, growth can only be sustained by making a secondary culture. (b) Continuous cell cultures are not affected by contact inhibition. They continue to grow regardless of cell density. (credit “micrographs”: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

An example of an immortal cell line is the HeLa cell line, which was originally cultivated from tumor cells obtained from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who died of cervical cancer in 1951. HeLa cells were the first continuous tissueculture cell line and were used to establish tissue culture as an important technology for research in cell biology, virology, and medicine. Prior to the discovery of HeLa cells, scientists were not able to establish tissue cultures with any reliability or stability. More than six decades later, this cell line is still alive and being used for medical research.


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