Bacillus subtilis Colonies Growing on TSY Agar

Bacterial Colony Morphology 
& Identification of Bacteria
 
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Microbiologists often need to grow bacterial colonies in pure cultures, meaning that the sample is all the same type of bacteria. For example, if a person is sick from a difficult-to-diagnose bacterial infection, a clinical sample of bacteria is obtained from the patient and then plated—streaked onto a Petri dish of bacterial growth medium and incubated for growth.

Article Summary: A bacterial colony consists of numerous bacterial cells derived from one parent. Colonies of different types of bacteria can be distinct in appearance.
Bacterial Colony Morphology & Identification of Bacteria
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Prokaryotic Cell, Mariana Ruiz
The appearance of the colony results from characteristics of the individual bacteria viewed collectively. For example, motile bacteria that have flagella which allow them to move, have colony morphology that expands out from the parent bacteria, sometimes creating a large, spread out colony with wavy, lobed margins.

Click here to see photographed examples of various bacterial colony morphologies.

Sources and Helpful Colony Morphology Links
  • Leboffe, M. J. and Pierce, B. E. (2010) Microbiology Laboratory Theory and Application, Third Edition. Morton Publishing Company.
  • Bauman, R. (2004) Microbiology. Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
Bacterial Colony Morphology Diagram
Tiny punctiform bacterial colonies characteristic of Staphylococcus
Tiny, punctiform, creamy white bacterial colonies characteristic of Staphylococcus, growing on Mannitol Salt Agar (MSA).
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Portions of this article originally appeared on Suite101 online magazine.​

​Page last updated: 4/2014

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There will likely be many different types of bacteria in a clinical sample, so some of the bacterial colonies that result will need to be isolated and tested to determine which type of bacteria is causing the illness. Being able to visibly differentiate bacteria based on the appearance of their colonies is a crude, but essential first step in isolating the different types of bacteria in the sample.

Colony Morphology & Identification of Bacteria
The term “colony morphology” refers to the visible characteristics of a colony. Colonies that differ in appearance are typically different bacterial strains, species, or genera. However, colony morphology is not a reliable way to identify bacteria, as many different types of bacteria have similar colony morphology.

Still, recognizing differences in colony morphology is useful when trying to isolate bacteria and also when plates of pure culture have become contaminated. If the majority of colonies in what is supposed to be a pure culture are similar in appearance, but there are a couple of colonies that look different from all of the rest, the experienced microbiology student knows not to sample from the oddball colonies, as these colonies have arisen from contamination of the plate.

Describing Bacterial Colony Morphology
Although bacterial colonies can differ in the details of their appearance, a colony basically looks like a dot growing on the medium. This dot is composed of millions of bacteria that arose through binary fission from one initial bacterium, the parent.

Description of a colony's morphology includes its shape, the margins or edges of the colony, the colony’s color, as well as surface features. Some colonies are round and smooth, others can have wavy edges and a wrinkled appearance.

PHOTOS OF BACTERIAL COLONIES: 1. Normal flora from the arm; 2. obtained using an "arm plate; 3. Touch plates growing bacteria from the fingertips; 4 & 5, Various Gram-negative bacterial colonies growing on MacConkey's agar. Photos from the SPO Bacterial Media & Culture Laboratory Exercise.
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