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Cell Culture Contamination: Types & Identification

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson is going to go over something known as a cell culture. You'll learn what it is, how it may be contaminated, and some of the ways by which this contamination may be spotted.

What is a Cell Culture?

Did you know that cells of various organisms can be grown in the lab? Yep. This is known as cell culture. Cell culture is the process of obtaining cells from a plant or animal and then growing them in an artificial environment.

Cell culture in a Petri dish.
Cell culture in a Petri dish.

Cell cultures can become contaminated but, luckily, these various forms of contamination can be detected. In this lesson, we are going to go over the types of cell culture contamination and how they can be spotted.

Types of Cell Culture Contamination

The two main forms of cell culture contamination are chemical and biological.

Chemical cell culture contamination refers to the adulteration of a cell culture with nonliving substances that have a negative impact on the culture system. What could these substances be or where might they be found? Chemical contamination can occur in:

  • Media, the growth medium used in the cell culture. This is where the majority of chemical contaminants are likely to be found.
  • Water. Improperly purified water, which can also actually be overly pure water. Highly pure water is actually very reactive and can cause the leaching of toxic chemicals from the equipment used to create and maintain cell cultures.
  • Some types of serum, a protein-rich liquid.
  • Endotoxins, which are toxins of Gram-negative bacteria.
  • Free radicals that are generated when some types of media are exposed to fluorescent lights.
  • Heavy metals.
  • Plasticizer from plastic storage vessels and tubing.
  • Detergents and disinfectants left on equipment.

The other major type of cell culture contamination comes from biological cell culture contamination, which is the adulteration of cell cultures via living organisms, such as:

  • Bacteria
  • Yeast
  • Molds
  • Viruses
  • Mycoplasmas
  • Protozoa
  • Invertebrates
  • Cross-contamination from other cell lines

The sources of these biological contaminants include everything from improperly disinfected supplies and media to airborne particles.

Identifying Cell Culture Contamination

Biological cell culture contamination can be detected via numerous strategies. Some of these strategies include:

  • Visual inspection with the naked eye. For example, the presence of a cloudy film may indicate bacterial contamination.
  • Microscopic examination (including electron microscopy), which can help reveal the presence of many different kinds of unwanted contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, and yeast.
  • Testing the pH. For instance, heavy contamination by yeast may increase the pH of the culture while bacterial contamination can decrease the pH.
  • More advanced testing, such as ELISA, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, in which proteins called antibodies attach to antigens (the potential contaminants) to reveal the presence of the latter.

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