Refrigeration and Freezing to Control Microorganisms


Cultures and other medical specimens can be stored for long periods at ultra-low temperatures. (a) An ultra-low freezer maintains temperatures at or below −70 °C. (b) Even lower temperatures can be achieved through freezing and storage in liquid nitrogen. (credit a: modification of work by “Expert Infantry”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by USDA)

OpenStax Microbiology

Just as high temperatures are effective for controlling microbial growth, exposing microbes to low temperatures can also be an easy and effective method of microbial control, with the exception of psychrophiles, which prefer cold temperatures. Refrigerators used in home kitchens or in the laboratory maintain temperatures between 0 °C and 7 °C. This temperature range inhibits microbial metabolism, slowing the growth of microorganisms significantly and helping preserve refrigerated products such as foods or medical supplies. Certain types of laboratory cultures can be preserved by refrigeration for later use.

Freezing below −2 °C may stop microbial growth and even kill susceptible organisms. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the only safe ways that frozen foods can be thawed are in the refrigerator, immersed in cold water changed every 30 minutes, or in the microwave, keeping the food at temperatures not conducive for bacterial growth. In addition, halted bacterial growth can restart in thawed foods, so thawed foods should be treated like fresh perishables.

Bacterial cultures and medical specimens requiring long-term storage or transport are often frozen at ultra-low temperatures of −70 °C or lower. These ultra-low temperatures can be achieved by storing specimens on dry ice in an ultra-low freezer or in special liquid nitrogen tanks, which maintain temperatures lower than −196 °C.


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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