The Serial Dilution


Serial dilution involves diluting a fixed volume of cells mixed with dilution solution using the previous dilution as an inoculum. The result is dilution of the original culture by an exponentially growing factor. (credit: modification of work by “Leberechtc”/Wikimedia Commons)

OpenStax Microbiology

The serial dilution of a culture is an important first step before proceeding to either the pour plate or spread plate method. The goal of the serial dilution process is to obtain plates with CFUs in the range of 30–300, and the process usually involves several dilutions in multiples of 10 to simplify calculation. The number of serial dilutions is chosen according to a preliminary estimate of the culture density.

A fixed volume of the original culture, 1.0 mL, is added to and thoroughly mixed with the first dilution tube solution, which contains 9.0 mL of sterile broth. This step represents a dilution factor of 10, or 1:10, compared with the original culture. From this first dilution, the same volume, 1.0 mL, is withdrawn and mixed with a fresh tube of 9.0 mL of dilution solution. The dilution factor is now 1:100 compared with the original culture. This process continues until a series of dilutions is produced that will bracket the desired cell concentration for accurate counting. From each tube, a sample is plated on solid medium using either the pour plate method or the spread plate method. The plates are incubated until colonies appear. Two to three plates are usually prepared from each dilution and the numbers of colonies counted on each plate are averaged. In all cases, thorough mixing of samples with the dilution medium (to ensure the cell distribution in the tube is random) is paramount to obtaining reliable results.

The dilution factor is used to calculate the number of cells in the original cell culture. In our example, an average of 50 colonies was counted on the plates obtained from the 1:10,000 dilution. Because only 0.1 mL of suspension was pipetted on the plate, the multiplier required to reconstitute the original concentration is 10 × 10,000. The number of CFU per mL is equal to 50 × 10 × 10,000 = 5,000,000. The number of bacteria in the culture is estimated as 5 million cells/mL. The colony count obtained from the 1:1000 dilution was 389, well below the expected 500 for a 10-fold difference in dilutions. This highlights the issue of inaccuracy when colony counts are greater than 300 and more than one bacterial cell grows into a single colony.

In the pour plate method of cell counting, the sample is mixed in liquid warm agar (45–50 °C) poured into a sterile Petri dish and further mixed by swirling. This process is repeated for each serial dilution prepared. The resulting colonies are counted and provide an estimate of the number of cells in the original volume sampled.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology
In the spread plate method of cell counting, the sample is poured onto solid agar and then spread using a sterile spreader. This process is repeated for each serial dilution prepared. The resulting colonies are counted and provide an estimate of the number of cells in the original volume samples.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

A very dilute sample—drinking water, for example—may not contain enough organisms to use either of the plate count methods described. In such cases, the original sample must be concentrated rather than diluted before plating. This can be accomplished using a modification of the plate count technique called the membrane filtration technique. Known volumes are vacuum-filtered aseptically through a membrane with a pore size small enough to trap microorganisms. The membrane is transferred to a Petri plate containing an appropriate growth medium. Colonies are counted after incubation. Calculation of the cell density is made by dividing the cell count by the volume of filtered liquid.


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


Leave a Reply