• Open Access

Culturing marine bacteria – an essential prerequisite for biodiscovery


E-mail irj@pml.ac.uk; Tel. (+44) 1752 633100; Fax (+44) 1752 633101.


The potential for using marine microbes for biodiscovery is severely limited by the lack of laboratory cultures. It is a long-standing observation that standard microbiological techniques only isolate a very small proportion of the wide diversity of microbes that are known in natural environments from DNA sequences. A number of explanations are reviewed. The process of establishing laboratory cultures may destroy any cell-to-cell communication that occurs between organisms in the natural environment and that are vital for growth. Bacteria probably grow as consortia in the sea and reliance on other bacteria for essential nutrients and substrates is not possible with standard microbiological approaches. Such interactions should be considered when designing programmes for the isolation of marine microbes. The benefits of novel technologies for manipulating cells are reviewed, including single cell encapsulation in gel micro-droplets. Although novel technologies offer benefits for bringing previously uncultured microbes into laboratory culture, many useful bacteria can still be isolated using variations of plating techniques. Results are summarized for a study to culture bacteria from a long-term observatory station in the English Channel. Bacterial biodiversity in this assemblage has recently been characterized using high-throughput sequencing techniques. Although Alphaproteobacteria dominated the natural bacterial assemblage throughout the year, Gammaproteobacteria were the most frequent group isolated by plating techniques. The use of different gelling agents and the addition of ammonium to seawater-based agar did lead to the isolation of a higher proportion of Alphaproteobacteria. Variation in medium composition was also able to increase the recovery of other groups of particular interest for biodiscovery, such as Actinobacteria.