A hidden pitfall in the preparation of agar media undermines microorganism cultivability

Appl Environ Microbiol. 2014 Dec;80(24):7659-66. doi: 10.1128/AEM.02741-14. Epub 2014 Oct 3.


Microbiologists have been using agar growth medium for over 120 years. It revolutionized microbiology in the 1890s when microbiologists were seeking effective methods to isolate microorganisms, which led to the successful cultivation of microorganisms as single clones. But there has been a disparity between total cell counts and cultivable cell counts on plates, often referred to as the "great plate count anomaly," that has long been a phenomenon that still remains unsolved. Here, we report that a common practice microbiologists have employed to prepare agar medium has a hidden pitfall: when phosphate was autoclaved together with agar to prepare solid growth media (PT medium), total colony counts were remarkably lower than those grown on agar plates in which phosphate and agar were separately autoclaved and mixed right before solidification (PS medium). We used a pure culture of Gemmatimonas aurantiaca T-27(T) and three representative sources of environmental samples, soil, sediment, and water, as inocula and compared colony counts between PT and PS agar plates. There were higher numbers of CFU on PS medium than on PT medium using G. aurantiaca or any of the environmental samples. Chemical analysis of PT agar plates suggested that hydrogen peroxide was contributing to growth inhibition. Comparison of 454 pyrosequences of the environmental samples to the isolates revealed that taxa grown on PS medium were more reflective of the original community structure than those grown on PT medium. Moreover, more hitherto-uncultivated microbes grew on PS than on PT medium.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agar / adverse effects
  • Agar / chemistry*
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / growth & development*
  • Bacteria / isolation & purification
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Culture Media / adverse effects*
  • Culture Media / chemistry
  • Culture Media / metabolism
  • Environmental Microbiology
  • Hot Temperature


  • Culture Media
  • Agar