EXPO 40 years BCCM: How does a culture collection work?

Welcome to the wonderful world of micro-organisms, or rather micro-heroes!

We take you to a special place where these little creatures are kept... our culture collections! 


In 1983, exactly three hundred years after Anthonie Van Leeuwenhoek's first observation of micro-organisms trough his own-build 'microscope', a project started in Belgium to better preserve micro-organisms, in order to study them further and to make them available to science.

This project, the Belgian Coordinated Collections of Microorganisms or BCCM, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.


What are culture collections?

Although microorganisms often make us think of diseases and infections, most microorganisms have a very beneficial impact on the environment and on our daily lives. More than that, they are true micro-heroes with superpowers!

Microorganisms perform an enormous number of useful functions. No wonder microbiologists work hard to discover new species and understand their role in the ecosystem. They are also investigating how these organisms can be used to help people and the planet.

To support this research, culture collections of microorganisms such as BCCM have been created. They are like large libraries of biological material. These collections are crucial for scientists in their research, but they are also incredibly important for industry. Just think of breweries, food companies, the pharmaceutical industry and many others who purchase material from them for use in their production processes. Culture collections are at the same time a safe place to deposit important biological material. 

The preservation of microorganisms, plasmids and cell lines is essential to enable biotechnological valorisation, to avoid the costs of re-isolation or construction and to prevent loss of microbial biodiversity. In some cases, re-isolation is even no longer possible due to habitat destruction or other factors.

If you are working with microorganisms, there is a good chance that these were obtained through a culture collection or Biological Resource Center (BRC). 

Their central objectives are the preservation, study and distribution of biological material, as well as the registration of related information.


How does biological material travel through a culture collection?


1. Acceptance of new biological material in the collection

Microorganisms are actively isolated from various environments worldwide to be studied, and deposited in a public collection. Contaminated samples are brought to culture collections for identification or characterization. New mutant strains and plasmids are constructed in the lab and stored in a culture collection.


2. Isolation and assignment of an accession number

In the laboratory, microbiologists isolate microorganisms from the received samples by giving them the necessary nutrients and optimal growth conditions. A unique identifier or "accession number" is assigned to each individual strain or plasmid.


3. Quality controls

The biological material is checked for contaminants, and strains are tested for their ability to grow in a fresh culture. Additionally, a fingerprint is made of the microorganism, namely the unique composition of its proteins, fatty acids or DNA. This is how we know which species the organism belongs to. The DNA sequence of plasmids and (parts) of the microbial genome is determined, to confirm their authenticity.

Depending on the material type, the way samples entered the collection and the way they are preserved, quality controls can be performed before or after preservation, or both.


4. Preservation & stock

To preserve microorganisms, most strains can be lyophilized (frozen and dehydrated) or stored at very low temperatures in freezers (– 80°C ) or liquid nitrogen vessels (– 196°C ). Some strains however can only be maintained for the long term by keeping them in continuous active culture.

Plasmids are preserved both as frozen plasmid DNA and as frozen plasmid-carrying bacterial cultures.


5. Distribution & services

After performing all necessary quality controls, samples of the biological materials are distributed to research institutes, industry, universities, etc. in various formats (lyophilized, DNA, living cultures,...).
Collections also offer all kinds of services such as identification of biological material, antimicrobial resistance testing, training, bioinformatics analyses, ...


6. Application

The circle is complete, the distributed biological material will be used in research or in industrial production processes.



The BCCM collections offer thousands of meticulously characterised strains of bacteria (incl. mycobacteria, cyanobacteria), filamentous fungi and yeasts, but also plasmids and diatoms, from a huge variety of clinical and environmental sources.

Working under quality controlled conditions, BCCM provides viable organisms or DNA extracts as resources for your research in e.g. drug development, fermentation, probiotic activity, bioremediation, cell factories;  as well as for testing, validation and educational purposes.


Looking for training?


BCCM provides training for groups or individuals, on isolation, cultivation and preservation techniques and many more.


Require more specific services?


On top of invaluable microbiological resources, BCCM also offers a range of services for microbial analyses. Our specialised staff is ready to help you find the right service for your specific business or academic needs.


But our micro-heroes are the stars of the expo! Will you join us in our discovery?