Streak Plate Method- Principle, Types, Methods, Uses
The streak plate method is a microbiological technique that allows the isolation of pure cultures and/or well-separated colonies of bacteria from a mixed population. It is one of the most commonly used methods for obtaining pure cultures of bacteria, which are essential for further identification and characterization of the microorganisms.
The streak plate method involves spreading a small amount of inoculum (a sample containing bacteria) over the surface of a solid agar medium in a petri dish using a sterile tool, such as an inoculating loop or a cotton swab. The inoculum is diluted by streaking it across the surface of the agar plate in a specific pattern, such as quadrant streaking, T-streaking, continuous streaking or radiant streaking. As the streaking proceeds, the number of bacteria on the tool decreases, resulting in fewer and fewer bacteria being deposited on the agar surface. Eventually, some individual bacterial cells or groups of cells are separated and well-spaced from each other on the agar surface. When these inoculated plates are incubated under suitable conditions, each isolated bacterial cell or group of cells will grow and multiply to form a visible colony. Each colony is assumed to arise from a single bacterium or a colony-forming unit (CFU) and represent a clone of genetically identical cells. Therefore, each colony can be considered as a pure culture of a single bacterial species or strain.
The streak plate method was first devised and used by Loeffler and Gaffky in Koch`s laboratory in the late 19th century to isolate pure cultures of bacteria from mixed samples. Since then, it has been widely used as a simple, reliable and convenient technique for isolating and propagating bacteria in microbiology laboratories. The streak plate method can also be used to study the colony morphology and characteristics of different bacteria on various types of agar media. Furthermore, the streak plate method can be used to determine whether a sample contains a single or mixed bacterial population by observing the presence or absence of different types of colonies on the agar plate.
The streak plate method has several advantages over other methods of isolation, such as pour plate method or spread plate method. For example, it does not require prior dilution of the sample, it allows manual control over the sample size and inoculation area, it can be used with both liquid and solid samples, it can be performed with different patterns of streaking depending on the sample concentration and desired outcome, and it is suitable for culturing aerobic organisms. However, the streak plate method also has some limitations, such as it is qualitative rather than quantitative, it is more suitable for aerobic than anaerobic organisms, it requires specific pre-solidified media before use, it may not isolate syntrophic bacteria that depend on each other for growth, it may not produce isolated colonies if the sample is too concentrated or if the streaking is not done properly, it may cause damage to the agar surface if too much pressure is applied during streaking, it may result in contamination if proper aseptic technique is not followed, and it may not isolate colonies from bacteria that have similar colony morphology.
In this article, we will discuss the objectives, principle, types, requirements, procedure or protocol, result interpretation, precautions, applications, advantages and limitations of the streak plate method in detail. We will also provide some examples and images to illustrate the concept and technique of the streak plate method.
The streak plate method has several objectives that make it a useful and widely used technique in microbiology. Some of the main objectives are:
- To obtain a pure culture of bacteria from a mixed culture. A pure culture is a population of bacteria that consists of only one species or strain. A pure culture is essential for identifying and characterizing bacteria based on their morphological, biochemical, and molecular features. A pure culture can also be used for further experiments or applications involving the bacteria of interest.
- To obtain well-isolated colonies of bacteria on the agar surface. A colony is a visible mass of bacteria that arises from the growth and division of a single cell or a group of cells. A well-isolated colony is one that is separated from other colonies by a clear space. Well-isolated colonies allow for easy observation and selection of bacteria based on their colony morphology, such as shape, size, color, texture, and edge. Well-isolated colonies also ensure that each colony represents a pure culture of bacteria.
- To propagate bacteria for further study or use. The streak plate method can be used to grow large numbers of bacteria from a small amount of inoculum. The inoculum is the sample of bacteria that is transferred to the agar plate by streaking. By spreading the inoculum over the agar surface, the bacteria are distributed evenly and have enough space and nutrients to grow and multiply. The resulting colonies can be used for various purposes, such as performing biochemical tests, conducting genetic experiments, producing metabolites, or inoculating other media or hosts.
The streak plate method is based on the principle of dilution during the process of mechanical spreading of inoculum over the surface of solidified culture media in order to obtain well-isolated colonies of the sample at the terminal streaks . The inoculum is picked by using a sterile tool, such as an inoculating loop or a cotton swab, and transferred to the surface of a pre-sterilized solid agar medium in a petri dish. The inoculum is then streaked over the agar surface in a specific pattern that reduces the number of bacteria in each successive streak. As the streaking proceeds, the inoculum is gradually diluted to the point where bacterial cells are separated as individual cells or as a colony-forming unit (CFU) at a gap of a few millimeters. When these inoculated plates are incubated, the isolated bacterium or a CFU will give rise to a well-isolated colony that can be picked for further analysis or subculture. Each well-isolated colony is assumed to arise from a single bacterium and represent a clone of a pure culture . However, this assumption may not hold true for some bacteria that form characteristic groupings during cell division, such as clusters of staphylococci or chains of streptococci. The streak plate method allows us to isolate and propagate bacteria from a mixed population and to study their colony morphology on different types of culture media . It is one of the most commonly used and reliable aseptic techniques in microbiology .
Based on the pattern of streaking, the streak plate method can be classified into four main types :
Quadrant Streaking: It is the most commonly used and the most preferred method where four equal-sized sections of the agar plate are streaked. It is also referred to as the “four-quadrant streak” or “four sectors” or “four-way streak” method. In this method, each plate is divided into four equal sectors and each adjacent sector is streaked sequentially. The sector which is streaked first is called the first sector or the first quadrant, and it has the highest concentration of inoculum. Gradually the second, third, and fourth quadrants will have diluted inoculum. By the time the fourth quadrant is streaked, the inoculum is highly diluted giving rise to isolated colonies following the incubation.
T-Streaking: It is another method of streaking where the agar Petri plate is divided into three sections and each section is streaked. Hence, this method is also known as the “three-sector streak” method. The media is divided into three sections by drawing a letter “T” and each adjacent section is streaked sequentially. By the time the final section is being streaked, the inoculum is diluted to the point to give rise to isolated colonies following the incubation.
Continuous Streaking: It is another commonly followed method where an inoculum is evenly distributed in a single continuous movement from starting point to the center of the plate. There is no need to divide the plate and sterilize the loop during the process. It is easy and quick; however, the problem is that we can use it only if the inoculum is either very diluted or we just have to propagate pure culture rather than isolate one. We can divide the 10 cm Petri plate into different sections (mostly 2 to 6), and in each section, we can streak different specimens following this method.
Radiant Streaking: It is another method of streaking where the inoculum is first streaked at one edge and spread in vertical lines above the edge. Finally, the vertical lines are cross streaked diagonally. This method is suitable to propagate pure culture, and also in the case of a dilute specimen.
There are other modified forms of streaking like:
Semi-quantitative Streaking: It is routinely followed in urine culture. It is a modified form of continuous streaking. In this method, a calibrated loop (usually a loop of 1 or 2μl) is used to streak a certain volume of the liquid specimen. A loopful of the specimen is streaked in a horizontal line in the middle of the Petri plate, and the specimen is spread all over the plate in a single continuous back and forth movement. This method allows us to approximately quantify the viable load (in a range, not an exact number) as well as get the pure culture in a single go.
Zigzag Streaking: It is another form of continuous streaking where a loopful of the specimen is streaked all over the plate in a zigzag pattern in a single continuous movement. It is commonly done to propagate pure culture and culture them in large quantities.
To perform the streak plate method successfully, you will need the following materials and equipment:
- A source of bacteria: This can be a stock culture, a previously streaked agar plate, or any other inoculum that contains the bacteria you want to isolate.
- An inoculation loop: This is a sterile tool used to pick and transfer a small amount of inoculum from the source to the agar plate. It can be made of metal or plastic, and it should be flamed before and after each use to avoid contamination.
- A Bunsen burner: This is used to sterilize the inoculation loop and to create a sterile zone around the flame where you can work safely.
- A striker or lighter: This is used to ignite the Bunsen burner.
- Lysol or ethanol: This is used to disinfect the work surface and your hands before and after the procedure.
- Agar plates: These are Petri dishes that contain a solid culture medium suitable for growing bacteria. The medium can be nutrient agar or any other specific medium depending on the type of bacteria you want to isolate. The agar plates should be properly solidified before use, and free of any water droplets, contamination, or foreign substances. If they are refrigerated, they should be allowed to come to room temperature before streaking.
- Paper towels: These are used to wipe off any excess inoculum from the loop and to clean up any spills or messes.
- A marker pen: This is used to label the agar plates with the date, name, sample ID, and other required information.
These are the basic requirements for performing the streak plate method. Depending on the type of bacteria and the purpose of isolation, you may also need additional materials such as gloves, goggles, biosafety cabinet, incubator, etc. You should always follow proper safety protocols and aseptic techniques when working with bacteria.
The general procedure of the streak plate method can be summarized as:
- Arrange all the requirements, put on the personal protective equipment (PPE), sterilize the work surface, and allow all the samples and media to come to room temperature if they were refrigerated.
- If the sample is very concentrated, then dilution can be helpful to get the isolated colonies. (But it is not compulsory as the sample will be diluted during the streaking process.)
- Sterilize the inoculating loop by flaming and allow it to cool. Pick a small portion of the sample culture. (If the sample is in suspension, then take a loopful of the sample.)
The inoculating procedure is different according to the method of streaking. Let us deal with each type:
Quadrant Streaking Procedure
- Lift the Petri plate in your left hand and hold it at an angle of 60°. (If you are left-handed, hold the plate in your right hand.) The sample is spread over about 1/4th of the media in the Petri plate from the rim to the center of the plate using a rapid, gentle, back and forth motion. (For ease, a beginner can draw two diameters intersecting each other diagonally at the back of the petri dish to divide the media into 4 equal sections.)
- Re-flame the loop and allow it to cool. Turn the Petri plate by 90° anticlockwise, and place the loop to the last streaks of the first quadrant. Move the loop back and forth to spread the inoculum over the last half of the streaks in the first quadrant into the empty second quadrant. (Be sure not to move the loop to the streaks in the first half of the first quadrant.)
- Repeat the process for streaking the third quadrant and the fourth quadrant. For the fourth quadrant, similar steps can be followed. However, many people prefer to draw a few (6 to 7) well-separated streaks by touching the second half of streaks in the third quadrant. Also, some prefer to make the final streak in a zigzag fashion making a tail.
- In a discontinuous fashion, the loop is sterilized after streaking each quadrant. In a continuous fashion, there is no need to flame the loop after streaking each quadrant. But, this is preferred only if the sample is very dilute.
- Lift the Petri plate in your left hand and hold it at an angle of 60°. (If you are left-handed, hold the plate in your right hand.) The sample is spread over about 1/3rd of the media in the Petri plate from the rim to the center of the plate using a rapid, gentle, back and forth motion. (For ease, a beginner can draw a letter “T” at
After incubating the streaked plates for 24 to 48 hours at a suitable temperature (usually 37°C), the plates are examined for the presence and appearance of bacterial colonies. The main purpose of the streak plate method is to obtain isolated colonies that can be further studied for identification and characterization. Therefore, the result interpretation focuses on finding and describing well-isolated colonies that are assumed to arise from a single bacterial cell or a colony-forming unit (CFU).
Well-isolated colonies are those that are separated from other colonies by a clear space and have a distinct shape and color. They can be picked and transferred to another plate or medium for further testing. The number and type of isolated colonies can indicate whether the original sample was pure or mixed, and what kind of bacteria were present in it.
To describe the isolated colonies, various characteristics are observed and recorded, such as:
- Form: The overall shape of the colony when viewed from above, such as circular, irregular, filamentous, or rhizoid.
- Elevation: The height and shape of the colony above the agar surface, such as raised, convex, flat, umbonate, or crateriform.
- Margin: The shape of the edge of the colony when magnified, such as entire, undulate, filiform, curled, or lobate.
- Size: The diameter of the colony in millimeters.
- Color: The pigmentation of the colony, such as white, cream, yellow, pink, red, green, blue, etc.
- Opacity: The degree of light transmission through the colony, such as opaque, translucent, or transparent.
- Texture: The surface appearance of the colony, such as smooth, rough, wrinkled, shiny, dull, etc.
- Odor: The smell of the colony if any.
Some examples of colony descriptions are:
- A circular, convex, entire, 2 mm diameter, white, opaque, smooth and odorless colony.
- An irregular, flat, undulate, 4 mm diameter, yellow-green, translucent, rough and musty-smelling colony.
- A filamentous, raised, curled, 3 mm diameter, pink-red, opaque, wrinkled and odorless colony.
Depending on the type of culture medium used for streaking, some additional characteristics may be observed and recorded. For example:
- If the medium is selective or differential for certain bacteria (such as MacConkey agar for Gram-negative enteric bacteria), then changes in the medium around or within the colonies may indicate their metabolic properties (such as lactose fermentation or hydrogen sulfide production).
- If the medium contains indicators or substrates for specific enzymes (such as blood agar for hemolysis or starch agar for amylase), then reactions between the bacteria and the medium may reveal their enzymatic activities (such as alpha-hemolysis or starch hydrolysis).
These characteristics can help to narrow down the possible identity of the bacteria and guide further tests.
If there are no isolated colonies on the plate or if there are too many colonies to count or distinguish (also called confluent growth), then the result interpretation is not possible. This may indicate that:
- The sample was too concentrated or too diluted for streaking.
- The streaking technique was not performed correctly or consistently.
- The culture medium was not suitable or sterile for streaking.
- The incubation conditions were not optimal for bacterial growth.
In such cases, the streak plate method should be repeated with appropriate modifications. Alternatively, other methods of isolation such as pour plate or spread plate can be used.
The streak plate method is a simple and reliable technique, but it requires some precautions to avoid errors and contamination. Here are some tips to follow when performing the streak plate method:
- Label the plates clearly before streaking to identify the sample and avoid confusion.
- Use sterile tools and equipment to spread the inoculum. Flame the loop or use a new disposable loop after each quadrant or sector.
- Use only a small amount of inoculum to obtain well-isolated colonies. If the sample is very concentrated, dilute it before streaking.
- Streak gently and smoothly without applying too much pressure or gouging the agar surface. Gouged agar may not produce as many colonies or may cause cross-contamination.
- Avoid touching the edge of the plate with the loop or the swab, as it may introduce unwanted microorganisms to the agar.
- Make sure the agar surface is dry and free of moisture droplets before streaking. If moisture is present, leave the plates at room temperature overnight or place them in a laminar flow hood to dry.
- Rotate the plate anticlockwise after each quadrant or sector and do not streak from the first half of the previous quadrant or sector. This will ensure proper dilution and separation of the inoculum.
- Follow the appropriate streaking pattern according to the type of streak plate method you are using. If you are using multiple samples in one plate, leave enough space between them to prevent overlapping.
- Label the plates properly at the bottom with the date, name, sample ID, and other required information. Incubate the plates in an inverted position under suitable conditions for 24 hours or as instructed by your protocol.
- Observe open plates at a safe distance from your face and do not breathe on them. Breathing on plates may introduce contaminants or affect the growth of microorganisms.
By following these precautions, you can perform the streak plate method successfully and obtain pure cultures of bacteria for further analysis.
The streak plate method is widely used in microbiology for various purposes, such as:
- To obtain a pure culture of bacteria from a mixed culture
- To identify and differentiate bacteria based on their colony morphology and characteristics
- To perform biochemical, genetic, or antimicrobial susceptibility testing on isolated colonies
- To propagate bacteria for further studies or applications
- To isolate and identify transformed bacteria from non-transformed bacteria by adding an antibiotic to the growth medium
- To isolate and quantify uropathogens from urine samples by using a calibrated loop
- To study the colony morphology of aerobic organisms
The streak plate method is a simple, reliable, convenient, and easy-to-perform technique that can provide valuable information about the bacterial population in a sample. It is one of the most commonly used aseptic techniques in microbiology.
The streak plate method is a widely used technique for isolating pure cultures of bacteria and obtaining well-isolated colonies. However, like any other method, it has its own advantages and limitations. Some of them are:
- It is a simple, reliable, convenient, and easy-to-perform method of inoculation.
- It results in well-isolated colonies, each of genetically identical individuals; hence, we can perform further tests and applications on the isolates. Hence, it is followed in clinical diagnosis.
- Dilution is done along with the process of inoculation (or streaking), hence, no need to perform separate dilution of the sample.
- It allows manually to control the sample and sample size and the inoculating area in a petri dish.
- Different patterns of streaking give flexibility in selecting the appropriate method based on sample size, availability of Petri dishes, and other requirements.
- It is a suitable and less-time consuming method to culture aerobic organisms.
- We can use a sample in both states; from the broth or suspension, as well as colonies from solid media.
- It is a qualitative isolation method, so it does not help in quantifying the microbial load.
- It is more suitable for aerobic organisms rather than anaerobes.
- Syntrophic bacteria cannot be purified by this method.
- It is unsuitable if the sample size is large and has a very high viable count. If we take heavy inoculum there may not be isolated colonies following the incubation.
- It needs specific media pre-solidified before the work. Hence, either we need prior information about probable microorganisms in the sample, or we have to have different types of media.
- There is a chance of tearing the agar surface during streaking if one is not skilled enough, and the media is freshly prepared.
- The method is time-consuming and requires an extra tool (inoculating loop) for streaking.
- There is a high chance of contamination during the process because we have to open the lid of the petri dish and constantly use the inoculating loop. Hence, there must be a sterile area and regular sterilization of the loop.
We are Compiling this Section. Thanks for your understanding.