MacConkey Agar is a selective and differential culture medium commonly used in microbiology to isolate and identify gram-negative bacteria. MacConkey agar is a type of culture medium used in microbiology to differentiate between gram-negative bacteria. It is particularly used to identify and differentiate members of the family Enterobacteriaceae, such as E. coli and Salmonella.
The medium is made up of a blend of nutrients, including peptones, lactose, and bile salts, as well as a pH indicator, such as neutral red. The bile salts and crystal violet in the medium inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria, while lactose is utilized by some gram-negative bacteria, which will ferment the lactose and produce acid, causing the medium to change color (pink to red) and indicating the presence of lactose-fermenting bacteria. The medium was developed by Alfred Theodore MacConkey in the 20th century.
What is MacConkey Agar ?
MacConkey Agar is a selective and differential culture medium commonly used in microbiology to isolate and identify gram-negative bacteria. It was named after its developer, Alfred Theodore MacConkey, who first introduced the medium in 1905.
The agar is a combination of various ingredients, including peptones, lactose, bile salts, and neutral red dye. It is a solid medium that is opaque, and turns a light pinkish-red color when pH decreases below 6.8.
MacConkey agar is highly selective towards gram-negative bacteria, as it contains bile salts and crystal violet, which inhibit the growth of most gram-positive organisms. It is also differential, as it contains lactose, which is utilized by lactose-fermenting bacteria to produce acid, which lowers the pH of the agar and causes the neutral red dye to turn pinkish-red. Non-lactose fermenting bacteria do not produce acid, and the agar remains the same color.
The medium can be used to identify bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Enterobacter aerogenes, which are all lactose-fermenting gram-negative bacteria commonly found in the intestinal tract.
History and development of MacConkey Agar:
MacConkey Agar was developed by British bacteriologist Alfred Theodore MacConkey in 1905 while he was working at the Royal Army Medical College in London. At the time, he was researching methods to isolate and identify bacteria that cause dysentery, which was a major health concern for British soldiers stationed in India and other parts of the British Empire.
MacConkey recognized the need for a medium that would selectively grow and differentiate enteric bacteria, which are bacteria that normally inhabit the intestinal tract. He developed the medium by modifying an existing bile salt agar formula, adding lactose as a differential ingredient and neutral red as an indicator. The medium was specifically designed to inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria while allowing for the growth of gram-negative bacteria, especially those that ferment lactose.
MacConkey Agar was an immediate success and quickly became a popular medium for the isolation and identification of enteric bacteria. It has since been used for a wide range of applications, including water and food testing, clinical microbiology, and research. The medium has undergone numerous modifications and improvements over the years, but the basic composition and principle behind MacConkey Agar remains the same today.
Composition and preparation of MacConkey Agar:
Composition MacConkey Agar
The composition of MacConkey Agar may vary slightly depending on the manufacturer, but the basic ingredients include:
- Peptones: provide nitrogen, amino acids, and other essential nutrients for bacterial growth.
- Lactose: a carbohydrate that serves as a source of energy and is used to differentiate lactose-fermenting from non-lactose-fermenting bacteria.
- Bile salts: inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria and some gram-negative bacteria.
- Neutral red: a pH indicator that turns pinkish-red in acidic conditions.
- Sodium chloride: maintains osmotic balance.
- Agar: a solidifying agent that provides a solid surface for bacterial growth.
|Ingredient||Amount per liter|
|Proteose Peptone||17 g|
|Bile salts||1.5 g|
|Sodium chloride||5 g|
|Neutral red||0.03 g|
|Crystal violet||0.001 g|
|Distilled water||to 1 liter|
Preparation MacConkey Agar:
The preparation of MacConkey Agar involves the following steps:
- Weigh out the above given amount of MacConkey Agar powder and add it to the 1 Liter of distilled or deionized water. The manufacturer’s instructions should be followed regarding the amount of powder to be used per volume of water.
- Heat the mixture while stirring to dissolve the powder completely.
- Adjust the pH of the mixture to 7.1 ± 0.2 using a pH meter or pH indicator strips.
- Autoclave the medium at 15 lbs pressure at 121°C for 15 minutes to sterilize it.
- Allow the medium to cool to 45-50°C before pouring it into sterile Petri dishes or tubes.
- Allow the medium to solidify before using it for bacterial culture.
It is important to note that MacConkey Agar should be stored in a dry, cool place to prevent deterioration of the agar and the loss of its selective and differential properties. The shelf life of the medium varies depending on the manufacturer and storage conditions, but it is typically 2-3 years if stored properly.
Principle behind MacConkey Agar:
The principle behind MacConkey Agar is based on its ability to selectively inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria and some gram-negative bacteria while allowing for the growth of lactose-fermenting gram-negative bacteria.
The agar contains bile salts and crystal violet, which inhibit the growth of most gram-positive bacteria by disrupting their cell membranes. Additionally, the agar contains lactose, which is used as a source of carbon and energy by lactose-fermenting bacteria. The fermentation of lactose produces acidic byproducts that lower the pH of the agar, causing the neutral red dye to turn pinkish-red. Non-lactose-fermenting bacteria do not produce acid and do not change the color of the agar.
Therefore, MacConkey Agar can differentiate lactose-fermenting bacteria from non-lactose-fermenting bacteria based on their ability to produce acid from lactose fermentation. The medium is commonly used to isolate and identify gram-negative bacteria, especially those of the Enterobacteriaceae family, such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Enterobacter aerogenes, which are commonly found in the intestinal tract.
In summary, the principle behind MacConkey Agar is to selectively inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria while allowing for the growth of gram-negative bacteria, especially those that ferment lactose. The differential properties of the agar allow for the identification of lactose-fermenting and non-lactose-fermenting bacteria based on their ability to produce acid.
Uses of MacConkey Agar:
MacConkey Agar is a commonly used culture medium in microbiology for the isolation, enumeration, and identification of gram-negative bacteria, especially those of the Enterobacteriaceae family. Here are some of the specific uses of MacConkey Agar:
- Isolation and differentiation of enteric bacteria: MacConkey Agar can be used to isolate and differentiate enteric bacteria from clinical and environmental samples, such as feces, urine, and water. The agar is selective for gram-negative bacteria, and its differential properties allow for the identification of lactose-fermenting and non-lactose-fermenting bacteria.
- Detection of coliform bacteria: MacConkey Agar can be used as a screening tool to detect coliform bacteria, which are a group of gram-negative bacteria commonly found in the intestinal tract of humans and animals. Coliforms are used as an indicator of fecal contamination in water, food, and other environmental samples.
- Identification of pathogens: MacConkey Agar can be used to identify pathogens that cause various infections, such as urinary tract infections, wound infections, and gastrointestinal infections. Specific bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp., and Shigella spp., can be identified based on their morphology and growth characteristics on the agar.
- Quality control of food and water: MacConkey Agar can be used for the quality control of food and water. The agar can detect gram-negative bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses or waterborne diseases, such as E. coli, Salmonella spp., and Vibrio spp.
- Research purposes: MacConkey Agar can be used in various research applications, such as studying the ecology and evolution of bacteria, testing the efficacy of antibiotics, and evaluating the genetic diversity of bacterial populations.
In summary, MacConkey Agar is a versatile medium that has a wide range of applications in microbiology, including the isolation, enumeration, and identification of gram-negative bacteria, detection of coliform bacteria, identification of pathogens, quality control of food and water, and research purposes.
Limitations of MacConkey Agar:
Despite its usefulness, MacConkey Agar has several limitations that should be taken into consideration:
- Selectivity: While MacConkey Agar is selective for gram-negative bacteria, it does not completely inhibit the growth of all gram-positive bacteria. Some gram-positive bacteria, such as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus species, can still grow on the agar, especially if they are present in high numbers.
- Sensitivity: MacConkey Agar is not sensitive for all types of gram-negative bacteria. Some gram-negative bacteria, such as Pseudomonas and Acinetobacter species, are non-lactose fermenters and will not grow on the agar. In addition, some strains of lactose-fermenting bacteria may not produce enough acid to cause a color change on the agar.
- Non-specificity: MacConkey Agar is not specific for the identification of individual bacterial species. Some gram-negative bacteria, such as Citrobacter, Enterobacter, and Klebsiella species, may have similar growth characteristics on the agar and may require additional tests for differentiation.
- Nutrient limitation: MacConkey Agar contains a limited amount of nutrients, which may limit the growth of some bacterial species. In addition, the agar may not support the growth of some fastidious bacteria, which require specific nutrients or growth conditions.
- Interpretation of results: The interpretation of the results on MacConkey Agar requires some expertise and experience. The color change on the agar can be affected by factors such as the age of the culture, the pH of the medium, and the amount of bacterial growth.
In summary, MacConkey Agar has some limitations that may affect its usefulness in certain situations. It is important to be aware of these limitations and to use the agar in conjunction with other diagnostic tests for accurate identification of bacterial species.
Interpretation of results from MacConkey Agar:
The interpretation of results from MacConkey Agar depends on the appearance of the colonies and the color of the agar surrounding them. Here are the general guidelines for interpreting results:
- Growth: The presence of growth on MacConkey Agar indicates that the sample contains gram-negative bacteria.
- Color: The color of the agar surrounding the colonies can help differentiate lactose fermenters from non-lactose fermenters. Lactose-fermenting bacteria produce acid during fermentation, which lowers the pH of the agar and turns it pink to red. Non-lactose fermenters do not produce acid and the agar remains pale to colorless.
- Colony morphology: The appearance of the colonies can provide additional information about the bacterial species present. The following are some examples:
- Escherichia coli: Appear as pink-red colonies with a slightly raised center and flat periphery.
- Klebsiella pneumoniae: Appear as large mucoid colonies with a pale color.
- Enterobacter aerogenes: Appear as large, pale-colored colonies with a raised center and flat periphery.
- Further tests: Additional tests may be necessary to confirm the identity of the bacterial species present on MacConkey Agar. These tests may include biochemical tests, serological tests, and molecular tests.
It is important to note that the interpretation of results from MacConkey Agar should be done in conjunction with other diagnostic tests for accurate identification of bacterial species. Additionally, it is important to follow standard laboratory procedures and protocols for handling and interpreting bacterial cultures.
Colony Morphology by Bacteria on MacConkey Agar
Here is a table showing some examples of colony morphologies by bacterial species:
|Bacterial species||Colony morphology|
|Escherichia coli||Circular, convex, smooth, opaque, pale pink|
|Staphylococcus aureus||Circular, convex, smooth, opaque, creamy yellow|
|Streptococcus pyogenes||Circular, convex, smooth, opaque, white|
|Pseudomonas aeruginosa||Circular, flat, smooth, shiny, blue-green|
|Bacillus subtilis||Circular, raised, wrinkled, opaque, white|
|Enterococcus faecalis||Circular, convex, smooth, opaque, white to beige|
|Klebsiella pneumoniae||Circular, mucoid, convex, smooth, pink to red|
|Proteus mirabilis||Circular, flat, spreading, irregular, swarming|
|Staphylococcus epidermidis||Circular, convex, smooth, opaque, white|
|Listeria monocytogenes||Circular, flat, smooth, opaque, gray-white|
|Salmonella enterica||Circular, raised, smooth, opaque, pale yellow|
|Clostridium perfringens||Circular, flat, spreading, opaque, gray|
|Neisseria gonorrhoeae||Circular, raised, smooth, translucent, gray-white|
|Vibrio cholerae||Circular, flat, smooth, opaque, yellow|
|Mycobacterium tuberculosis||Circular, raised, rough, dry, buff to tan|
Note: The colony morphology of a bacterial species can vary depending on the specific strain, growing conditions, and medium used. This table provides some general characteristics of common bacterial species but should not be used as a definitive guide for bacterial identification.
Variations of MacConkey Agar:
There are several variations of MacConkey Agar that have been developed to suit specific purposes or to overcome the limitations of the original formulation. Here are some examples:
- MacConkey-Sorbitol Agar: This variant of MacConkey Agar is used for the detection of E. coli O157:H7, a strain of E. coli that causes severe foodborne illness. MacConkey-Sorbitol Agar contains sorbitol instead of lactose, which E. coli O157:H7 is unable to ferment. As a result, the colonies of E. coli O157:H7 appear colorless, while other lactose-fermenting bacteria appear pink to red.
- Hektoen Enteric Agar: This agar is a modification of MacConkey Agar and is used for the selective isolation and differentiation of gram-negative enteric bacteria, such as Salmonella and Shigella species. Hektoen Enteric Agar contains bile salts, which inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria, and other selective agents that inhibit the growth of non-enteric gram-negative bacteria. The agar also contains lactose, sucrose, and salicin, which are fermented by different bacterial species, resulting in characteristic colony morphology and color changes.
- Violet Red Bile Agar (VRBA): This agar is used for the selective isolation of gram-negative bacteria from food samples, water samples, and clinical specimens. VRBA contains bile salts, which inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria, and crystal violet, which inhibits the growth of gram-negative bacteria other than coliforms. The agar also contains lactose, which is fermented by coliforms, resulting in pink to red colonies.
- EMB Agar: Eosin Methylene Blue (EMB) Agar is a selective and differential agar used for the isolation and differentiation of gram-negative bacteria, particularly fecal coliforms. EMB Agar contains eosin and methylene blue, which inhibit the growth of gram-positive bacteria, and lactose, which is fermented by coliforms. The agar also contains dyes that react with acid produced during fermentation to produce a metallic sheen on colonies of E. coli.
These are just a few examples of the many variations of MacConkey Agar that have been developed for different applications. Each variant has its own specific formulation and selective agents, which allow for the isolation and identification of different bacterial species.
References and further reading:
- MacConkey Agar. Thermo Fisher Scientific. https://www.thermofisher.com/uk/en/home/life-science/cell-culture/microbiological-culture/microbiological-media/culture-media/macconkey-agar.html
- MacConkey Agar. Microbiology Society. https://microbiologysociety.org/publication/past-issues/microbiology-today/past-issues-archive/2006-2009/march-2009/macconkey-agar.html
- Isenberg, H. D. (Ed.). (2004). Clinical Microbiology Procedures Handbook. American Society for Microbiology.
- Collee, J. G., Miles, R. S., Watt, B. (Eds.). (1996). Mackie and McCartney Practical Medical Microbiology. Churchill Livingstone.
- Forbes, B. A., Sahm, D. F., Weissfeld, A. S. (Eds.). (2007). Bailey & Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology. Mosby Elsevier.
- Leuschner, R. G. (2007). The rise and fall and resurgence of the MacConkey agar plate. Journal of microbiological methods, 68(2), 255-257. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mimet.2006.09.022
- Seng, P., Drancourt, M., Gouriet, F., La Scola, B., Fournier, P. E., Rolain, J. M., & Raoult, D. (2009). Ongoing revolution in bacteriology: routine identification of bacteria by matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Clinical infectious diseases, 49(4), 543-551. https://doi.org/10.1086/600885
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