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Cell culture media frequently asked questions

Cell culture media

Are batch numbers and expiration dates on media and other reagents important?

Batch numbers and expiration dates are provided with cell culture products, including media, to ensure quality, stability and full traceability for records in basic research and manufacturing operations 

Can fully formulated media be frozen?

In most cases the answer is yes but an expiration date should be used and adhered to. 

Should I use antibiotics in my growth media?

Antibiotics are routinely used in cell cultures to prevent bacterial infections. But there are side effects: Studies show that they impair cell growth and differentiation. With good laboratory practice, and aseptic technique the use of antibiotics is unnecessary. Aseptic techniques, including a sterile work area, sterile reagents and media, good personal hygiene and sterile handling, act as a barrier between bacteria in the environment and the sterile cell culture 

How many types of cell culture media are there?

There are many types of cell culture media as the growth and metabolic requirements and biological environments of cultured cells are myriad. However, all cell culture media can be divided into two main groups – natural and artificial:

  1. Natural media are derived from natural tissues, such as blood or serum.  Various tissues, in physiological or modified form, can be used as cell culture media. These include foetal bovine serum (FBS), and umbilical cord serum. Natural media is very hard to reproduce as the exact composition of these media is undefined and subject to batch-to-batch variability.
  2. Artificial media are chemically defined and synthetically manufactured with different ratios of organic and inorganic compounds such as vitamins, amino acids, nutrients and salts. These cell culture media can be supplied in either a liquid or powder form. Artificial media are often supplemented with FBS or some other type of natural sera to add essential natural nutrients and growth factors for cell proliferation.

Cell culture media (both natural and artificial) have been produced to a generalised formula of nutrients needed for cell culture growth. Researchers often need to amend the cell culture media to accommodate the optimum growth requirements of a specific cell type. This can include altering serum concentrations, and/or adjusting the concentrations/ratios of other supplements, such as additional amino acids, vitamins, cytokines and/or selection compounds (e.g. puromycin).

Some cell types require very specific amounts of multiple supplements and selecting the correct combination of supplements is time consuming, laborious and difficult to reproduce across cell culture media batches. Recently, some new physiologically-relevant cell culture media were developed aiming to resolve some of these issues. One in particular, PlasmaxTM, is the only ready-to-use cell culture medium containing growth enhancing components at physiological levels as well as essential trace elements.

What are the advantages/ disadvantages of including serum in media?

As serum is derived from natural tissues, adding serum to your cell culture growth media, provides your cell culture with some physiological elements:

  • Presence of growth enhancing nutrients, leading to increased cell culture growth rates.
  • Presence of basic nutrients and minerals found within the in vivo environment, e.g. binding proteins, ensuring your cell cultures better resemble in vivo cell cultures.
  • Presence of inhibitors protecting cells from a variety of conditions such as proteolysis.

However, there are also disadvantages to using serum, particularly as the exact composition of serum is undefined:

  • Difficulty in ensuring batch-to-batch consistency, leading to increased testing taking place at the start of each new batch.
  • Less control over the cell culture’s physiological response
  • Increased costs of purchasing both sera and cell culture media.

New cell culture media are trying to replicate the advantages of including serum within cell culture media, without the disadvantages. One example of these new physiologically-relevant cell culture media is PlasmaxTM, which is the only ready-to-use cell culture medium containing growth-enhancing components at physiological levels as well as essential trace elements.

How do I select the right cell culture media?

Cell culture media and their associated supplements have been targeted to specific cell culture types and have been tailored to provide a variety of different formulation options, so there are a vast range to choose from. Identifying your research objectives, and selecting the most appropriate cell type, are therefore crucial first steps in selecting the right cell culture media.

Once these decisions have been made, the choice of cell culture media will have been substantially narrowed. E.g. Primary cell cultures (fibroblasts, mesenchymal stem cells, etc.) generally require specific growth factors to be supplemented to artificial media, whereas established cell lines such as HeLa or RPE1 require minimal supplements (FBS, L-Glutamine, optional antibacterial/fungal), beyond the basal media.

Much of the cell culture media and different supplements necessary for cell growth and survival are empirically determined. These can be found in databases such as ATCC, ECACC, or other cell repositories, providing a first reference point for identifying the necessary media, supplement types and concentrations for your chosen cells.

However, your research objectives will also need to be considered. If you are investigating cellular metabolism or the impact of specific nutrients on cellular processes, a more physiologically-relevant cell culture medium might be the best option to obtain more relevant results. These types of cell culture media have only recently been developed, with one of the first being PlasmaxTM, a ready-to-use medium, that mimics the metabolic and physiological profile of human plasma.

Cell culture tips and tricks

  • Bring the temperature of the cell culture media to 37oC in a clean water bath, preferably dedicated to cell culture use only, to decrease chances of contamination.
  • Keep the biosafety cabinet (the cell culture hood) empty, except when it is in use and stay clear of the vents to promote proper air circulation. This decreases the chances of contamination. Wipe down the work surface with 70% ethanol before and after using the biosafety cabinet to maintain a sterile/ an aseptic environment.
  • Spray and wipe down everything (pipets, media bottles, other conical tubes, tube racks, etc) that enters the biosafety cabinet with 70% ethanol, to reduce chances of contamination.
  • Refrain from placing caps, pipets, or other equipment down on the sterilized surfaces. If a lid needs to be opened, be swift in keeping bottles and flasks open, and quickly close them to reduce the time the bottle stays open to potential contaminants. If caps and lids must be placed onto the work surface, briefly place them open-side up, and ensure that nothing touches the inside of the cap/lid.
  • If you suspect a pipet tip may have touched a surface (even if it has been sterilised), dispose of the pipet tip immediately and start with a fresh tip. The contact, albeit brief, could introduce contaminants (e.g. bacteria, fungi) that could exist on surfaces (the biosafety cabinet walls, pipets, cell culture dishes/flasks) into the cell culture medium, the cell stock itself, or any other supplements and addition stocks.
  • Unopened cell culture media can be stored in the cold room or a 4 oC fridge, and should be used close to, or before the expiration date. Once supplemented with FBS and/or other additives, the media should be used within 6 weeks of opening.  The supplemented media can be stored at 4oC during this time, and warmed to 37 oC before using.

How often should you change your cell culture media?

In general, media should be changed every 2-3 days. However, this will depend on the cell culture type cell density and volume of medium used per unit of surface. Allowing the medium to turn yellow as a consequence of the acidic pH generated by cell metabolic activity should be avoided as it can lead to cell death and phenotypic changes in the culture. Moreover not all the media will turn yellow before being exhausted of nutrients.

Usually (though not always, depending on the cell culture type), the timings of when you change your cell culture media coincide with what is called passaging or split. In general, this involves the transfer of either adherent or suspension cell cultures once they have grown to confluency, to ensure continued cell culture growth:

  • Adherent cells are usually passaged by treating the cell culture with an enzyme that helps to lift adherent cells from the surface, before a fraction of this suspension is reseeded to a clean, unused plate/flask and additional media is added. The plate/flask manufacturer usually has information on the media volume for each dish/flask for proper gas exchange. Cells should be seeded at a density that is most optimal for proliferation for the specific cell type and should form a monolayer.
  • In suspended cells, a proportion of the cells suspended in the cell culture medium are removed from the container and placed into a fresh flask/dish to maintain the correct seeding density for that particular cell type in a given flask/dish.

How long does cell culture media last?

In general, cell culture media lasts for 3-4 weeks once it has been opened and supplemented, though this will vary across cell culture media and the rate of usage – PlasmaxTM, for example, lasts for 6 weeks once it has been opened. You should receive instructions on storage and shelf life with your cell culture media order, however databases such as ATCC also have information on shelf life and storage, in the unlikely event you can’t find the relevant information on the manufacturer’s website.


What is Plasmax?

PlasmaxTM is a cell culture medium that closely mimics the metabolic and physiological profile of human plasma. It is a chemically defined and ready-to-use medium, painstakingly developed to give the best possible representation of in vivo conditions.

Why was Plasmax developed?

Dr. Tardito, an oncometabolism researcher at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, observed that growth focussed media can have a range of effects on cellular metabolism that is cell-type and condition specific (e.g. normoxia/ hypoxia). This effects the experimental results obtained. Dr. Tardito sought to develop a human plasma like cell culture medium that represents the in vivo  cellular environment by providing a physiological complement of nutrients provided by human plasma - PlasmaxTM.   Find out more about PlasmaxTM

How does Plasmax differ from DMEM/ F12/ RPMI?

Growth focussed media lack a number of key components that are present in human plasma like media such as PlasmaxTM . PlasmaxTM contains over 80 components, of which 50 have been optimised to the levels found within human plasma, providing a more comprehensive and physiologically relevant nutritional profile.

Can Plasmax be used like a growth focussed media (e.g. DMEM)?

Yes, PlasmaxTM is ready-to-use and is designed to be used as a direct replacement for conventional media. Cell viability has been tested in various cell types with 2.5% Foetal Bovine Serum.

How does Plasmax affect the metabolic profile of your cultured cells?

Unlike growth-focussed media, PlasmaxTM is designed to mimic the nutrient profile of human plasma, better reflecting the cancer microenvironment and providing more physiologically accurate experimental results. Growing cells in PlasmaxTM results in a metabolite profile that is statistically similar to in vivo tumours.

What is the role of trace elements in Plasmax?

PlasmaxTM is the only ready-to-use cell culture medium containing growth enhancing components at physiological levels as well as essential trace elements. These trace elements are essential as they:

  • increase the antioxidant capacity of cells, preventing ferroptosis-induced cell death.
  • sustain cell growth even in serum free conditions.
  • encourage faster cell culture proliferation in comparison with DMEM when both are supplemented with 2.5% foetal bovine serum.

Which cells can Plasmax be used to culture?

PlasmaxTM has been used to successfully culture a number of cell lines including:

Cell type Tissue of origin Cells status Species
HepG2 Liver cancer Established line Human
HuH7 Liver cancer Established line Human
HuH6 Liver cancer Established line Human
BT549 Breast cancer Established line Human
MDA-MB-468 Breast cancer Established line Human
Cal120 Breast cancer Established line Human
A375 Melanoma Established line Human
Colo829 Melanoma Established line Human
LN18 Brain cancer Established line Human
Naive glioblastoma cells Brain cancer Low passage lines Human
Dermal Fibroblasts Epidermis Primary Human
Small intestin organoid Small intestine Primary Mouse
Mammosphers Mammary gland Primary Mouse
Mesenchimal stromal cells Bone marrow Primary Human
Embryonic stem cells Embryo Primary Human
Trophoblast stem cells Placenta Primary Human

Since its composition reflects that of human plasma, it should be suitable for many other cell types.

If you have specific cells you wish to use PlasmaxTM on, or would like further details on the cell lines mentioned above, we are happy to answer your question in more detail. Please contact us.

Can Plasmax be supplemented with antibiotics?

PlasmaxTM can be supplemented with antibiotics. The inventors have supplemented Plasmax with penicillin-streptomycin to grow primary cells without issues. They do not have direct experience with Primocin (proprietary components) but do not anticipate any problem by supplementing it to Plasmax.

Can I use Plasmax alone or is it good to add FBS?

PlasmaxTM does not contain any proteins, growth factors or lipid therefore FBS should be added at the concentration you consider most appropriate. The range is from 0% (+ growth factors and albumax) to 10% depending on the cell type and experiment. The use of dyalized FBS reduces the contribution of metabolites at unknown concentrations, minimizing the divergence from the original Plasmax formulation. We would recommend dialyzed FBS for the experiments where the concentration of specific nutrients is critical.

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