For organisms that grow well on agar plates, a streak plate is the method of choice for obtaining pure culture. The streak plate technique is used to isolate the organisms (mostly bacteria) from a mixed population into a pure culture. The inoculum is streaked over the agar surface to “thin out” the bacteria. Some individual bacterial cells are separated and well-spaced from each other.
By streaking, a dilution gradient is established across the surface of the agar plate. Because of this, confluent growth occurs on the part of the plate where the bacterial cells are not sufficiently separated; in other regions where few bacteria are deposited, separate macroscopic colonies develop. Each well-isolated colony is assumed to arise from a single bacterium and represent a clone of a pure culture.
Table of Contents
Principle of Streaking
The inoculum is diluted by streaking it across the surface of the agar plate. While streaking in successive areas of the plate, the inoculum is diluted to the point where only one bacterial cell is deposited every few millimeters on the surface of the agar plate. An isolated colony is formed when these lone bacterial cells divide and give rise to thousands and thousands of new bacterial cells. Pure cultures can be obtained by picking well-isolated colonies and re-streaking these on fresh agar plates.
A common assumption is an isolated colony of bacteria is the progeny of a single bacterial cell (i.e. colony is the clone). However, this is not necessarily true. With species in which the cells form a characteristic grouping during cell divisions, the colony-forming unit may develop from a group of cells rather than form a single cell. For example, clusters of staphylococci, chains of streptococci, etc.
- A source of bacteria (stock culture, previously streaked agar plate, or any other inoculum)
- Inoculation loop
- A striker/lighter
- Bunsen burner
- Lysol (10%v/v)
- Agar plate (nutrient agar or any other agar medium)
- Paper towels
Tips for the best results
- Use only a small amount of inoculum.
- Streak lightly so that you do not gouge the agar.
- Flame the loop after you streak each quadrant.
- Make sure the surface of the plate is free of droplets of condensed moisture.
Purpose of streaking
The purpose of the streak plate is to obtain isolated colonies from an inoculum. Isolated colonies represent a clone of cells derived from a single precursor.
- To produce isolated colonies of an organism (primarily bacteria) on an agar plate. This is useful when we separate organisms in a mixed culture (to purify/isolate a particular strain from contaminants) or to study an organism’s colony morphology.
- To identify the organism: biochemical tests to identify bacteria are only valid when performed on pure cultures.
Types of Streaking Methods
Many different streaking patterns can be used to separate individual bacterial cells on the agar surface. There are four basic types of streaking methods;
- Quadrant streaking
- Continuous streak
- Radiant streak
As the original sample is diluted by streaking it over successive quadrants, the number of organisms decreases. Usually, by the third or fourth quadrant, only a few organisms are transferred, giving discrete colony-forming units (CFUs).
- Sterilize the inoculating loop in the bunsen burner by putting the loop into the flame until it is red hot or by incinerating it in a micro incinerator. Allow it to cool.
- Pick an isolated colony from the agar plate culture and spread it over the first quadrant (approximately 1/4 of the plate) using close parallel streaks. You don’t need a huge chunk.
- Immediately streak the inoculating loop gently over a quarter of the plate using a back-and-forth motion (see area 1 in the figure above).
- Flame the loop again and allow it to cool. Returning to the edge of area 1 that you just streaked, extend the streaks into the second quarter of the plate (area 2).
- Flame the loop again and allow it to cool. Returning to the area you just streaked (area 2), extend the streaks into the third quarter of the plate (area 3).
- Flame the loop again and allow it to cool. Returning to the area you just streaked (area 3), extend the streaks into the center fourth of the plate (area 4).
- Flame your loop once more.
Note: Bi-plate inoculation of samples from sterile sites is often done in diagnostic laboratories to save time and space.
The streaked plate is incubated at 37°C for 24 hours. Examine the colonies grown on the plate carefully. All colonies should have the same general appearance. If there is more than one colony type, each type should be streaked again on a separate plate to obtain a pure culture.
- Repeat steps 1 to 6 as per quadrant streaking.
- A T shape is drawn on the bottom surface of the plate using a marker.
- Remove the lid of the labeled agar plate just enough to insert the loop and lightly drag the loop with suspension in a zig-zag pattern in the top half of the T. (remember to stay within the region) Close the lid and flame the inoculating loop once again.
- Rotate the plate at 90° and remove the lid just like before just to fit to inoculating loop. Drag the loop lightly from the first section towards the second section and repeat the zig-zag pattern.
- Flame the loop and repeat step 8 in the last remaining section.
- The loop is flamed once again before settling it down.
- The loop is flamed once again before settling it down.
- An agar plate is taken and appropriately labeled.
- Using a sterile (flamed) loop, a loopful sample is carefully spread on the edge of the agar. (Care should be given not to gauge the agar)
- The loop is famed, and after cooling, 7-8 straight lines are streaked from area 1 to the opposite side of the plate.
- The loop flamed again, and cross streaking is done over the previous streaks when cool sufficiently. (start from area 1)
- When setting down the loop, it should be flamed till red hot.
- Using a sterile loop with the loopful sample, the organism is spread from edge (A) to the middle of the labeled plate. (gouging should be avoided)
- The plate is then rotated at 180°, ensuring the inoculated portion stays from your hand.
- The same inoculum loop is used, and the process of spreading is repeated from the edge (B) to the middle.
- The loop is then flamed and placed aside.
NOTE: Another method of streaking commonly practiced in hospital settings is the “semi-quantitative method of urine culture”:
A commonly used method of streaking with calibrated loop (4mm in diameter) to semi-quantify the bacteria isolated from the urine specimen. The streaking is similar to continuous streaking. The difference is that the primary inoculum is made by drawing a vertical line from the top to the bottom of the plate with a calibrated loop.
Application of Streak Plate
- It is used for determining the causative agent of the disease using clinical specimens.
- It can be applied to isolate a pure culture of bacteria from the mixture of the bacterial suspension.
- Furthermore, identification using biochemical tests could be done of the isolated colonies.
Limitation of Streak Plate Technique
- Only aerobic or facultative aerobic bacterial isolates could be grown.
- The primary suspension should contain the viable (living) bacterium.
- Clinical Microbiology Procedures Handbook, Fourth Edition. (2016). In Clinical Microbiology Procedures Handbook, Fourth Edition. American Society of Microbiology. https://doi.org/10.1128/9781555818814
- Image source: CDC Public Health Image Library. Image credit: CDC/James Gathany (PHIL #: 7925)