MacConkey Agar- Principle, Composition and Colonies


MacConkey Agar (MA) stands as a stalwart medium, aiding researchers in the isolation, identification, and differentiation of bacteria. This article delves into the depths of MacConkey Agar, shedding light on its composition, working principles, historical significance, practical applications, and inherent strengths and weaknesses. 

What is MacConkey Agar?

MacConkey Agar, named after its inventor Alfred Theodore MacConkey, is a selective and differential culture medium widely employed in microbiology laboratories. It serves as an essential tool for isolating and distinguishing Gram-negative bacteria, particularly those belonging to the Enterobacteriaceae family.


MacConkey Agar was first developed in the late 19th century by Alfred Theodore MacConkey, a British bacteriologist. He aimed to create a medium that could selectively grow and differentiate lactose-fermenting and non-fermenting bacteria. His research focused on the identification of enteric pathogens, particularly those associated with gastrointestinal diseases. It has since become one of the most widely used culture media in microbiology.

How Does MacConkey Agar Work?

MacConkey Agar functions on the principle of both selectivity and differential characteristics. The medium’s selective nature stems from the presence of crystal violet and bile salts, which inhibit the growth of Gram-positive bacteria while allowing the proliferation of Gram-negative organisms. By doing so, it creates an environment that fosters the growth of specific bacterial species, aiding in their isolation.

Furthermore, MacConkey Agar features differential properties through the addition of lactose and neutral red indicator dye. Bacteria capable of fermenting lactose produce acid byproducts, which lower the pH of the medium. This acidification leads to a color change, as the neutral red indicator transitions from a pale yellow to a vibrant pink or red hue. By distinguishing between lactose fermenters and non-fermenters, It enables the identification of specific bacterial strains.

Composition of MacConkey Agar

The composition of MA showcases a meticulously balanced blend of ingredients designed to foster selectivity and differential capabilities. Its key constituents include:

  1. Peptone: A rich source of nitrogen and amino acids, providing essential nutrients for bacterial growth.
  2. Lactose: An easily fermentable carbohydrate that acts as a substrate for bacterial metabolic processes.
  3. Bile salts: Powerful inhibitors of Gram-positive bacteria, enabling selective growth of Gram-negative organisms.
  4. Neutral red: A pH indicator dye that imparts color changes in response to lactose fermentation.
  5. Crystal violet: An agent that further suppresses the growth of Gram-positive bacteria, reinforcing selectivity.
  6. Agar: A solidifying agent that allows the medium to solidify, providing a suitable platform for bacterial growth.
Pancreatic digest of gelatin17.0g
Bile salts1.5g
Pancreatic digest of casein1.5g
Peptic digest of animal tissue1.5g
Neutral Red0.03g
Crystal Violet1.0mg

Preparation MacConkey Agar 

The utilization of MacConkey Agar in microbiology laboratories follows a standardized procedure. The steps involved in its usage are as follows:

  1. Sterilization: Before use, MacConkey Agar must undergo autoclaving or sterilization to eliminate any potential contaminants.
  2. Inoculation: Using an inoculating loop, a small amount of the specimen (such as a swab or broth culture) is streaked evenly across the surface of the agar plate.
  3. Incubation: The inoculated plate is then placed in an incubator set to an optimal temperature, typically around 37 degrees Celsius. Incubation times may vary depending on the targeted organisms.
  4. Observation and Interpretation: Following incubation, the agar plate is carefully examined for growth and colony characteristics. Color changes, such as pink or red colonies, indicate lactose fermentation, while colorless colonies suggest non-fermentation.


The interpretation of MacConkey Agar results involves the observation of colony characteristics on the medium. The followings are the commonly observed colony characteristics and their possible interpretations:

  1. Lactose-Fermenting Colonies: Lactose-fermenting bacteria that possess the enzyme β-galactosidase will utilize the lactose present in the medium, leading to the production of acid. These colonies typically exhibit the following characteristics:
    • Pink to red colonies: Lactose-fermenting bacteria produce acid, which causes a pH decrease in the agar. This acidic environment leads to the color change of the pH indicator dye (neutral red) present in the medium, resulting in the colonies appearing pink to red in color.
    • Smooth or mucoid texture: Lactose-fermenting colonies may appear smooth or mucoid due to the production of extracellular polysaccharides.
  2. Non-Fermenting Colonies: Non-fermenting bacteria, which do not possess β-galactosidase to metabolize lactose, will not produce acid. These colonies typically exhibit the following characteristics:
    • Colorless or pale colonies: Non-fermenting bacteria do not cause a decrease in pH, and therefore, the pH indicator dye remains in its original color, resulting in colorless or pale colonies.
    • Variable colony morphology: Non-fermenting colonies may have varied morphologies, such as dry, rough, or irregular appearances.
macconkey agar results

Common Microbial Isolates

MacConkey Agar is particularly useful for the isolation and differentiation of Gram-negative bacteria, especially those belonging to the Enterobacteriaceae family. The following are some of the common microbial isolates and their interpretations on MA:

  1. Escherichia coli: This is a lactose-fermenting bacterium and typically produces pink to red colonies on MA. It may display a characteristic metallic sheen due to the production of certain surface proteins.
  2. Klebsiella spp.: Klebsiella species, including Klebsiella pneumoniae, are lactose-fermenting bacteria that produce pink to red colonies on MacConkey Agar. They may exhibit mucoid or stringy colonies due to the production of capsule polysaccharides.
  3. Salmonella spp.: Salmonella species are non-lactose-fermenting bacteria, and their colonies on MacConkey Agar appear colorless or pale. Salmonella colonies may exhibit black centers or a “bull’s-eye” appearance due to the production of hydrogen sulfide.
  4. Shigella spp.: Shigella species are also non-lactose-fermenting bacteria and display colorless or pale colonies on MacConkey Agar. They typically exhibit a characteristic morphology, such as rough or irregular colonies.
  5. Proteus spp.: Proteus species are non-lactose-fermenting bacteria and appear colorless or pale on MacConkey Agar. They often display a swarming growth pattern, spreading outwards from the point of inoculation.

Uses of MacConkey Agar

MacConkey Agar finds extensive utility in various applications within the field of microbiology. Some notable uses include:

  1. Identification of Enterobacteriaceae: Due to its selective nature, MacConkey Agar aids in isolating and identifying members of the Enterobacteriaceae family, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Shigella species.
  2. Detection of Urinary Tract Infections: In clinical settings, MacConkey Agar assists in the diagnosis of urinary tract infections by facilitating the growth and identification of Gram-negative bacteria commonly associated with such conditions.
  3. Environmental Monitoring: The medium’s ability to differentiate between lactose fermenters and non-fermenters makes it valuable for monitoring microbial contamination in food, water, and environmental samples.

Advantages of MacConkey Agar

MacConkey Agar offers several notable advantages that contribute to its widespread use in microbiological research and diagnostics:

  1. Selective Properties: The inhibitory effect on Gram-positive bacteria allows for the isolation and enrichment of Gram-negative organisms, streamlining the identification process.
  2. Differential Capabilities: The distinctive color changes resulting from lactose fermentation aid in the rapid identification of specific bacterial strains, saving valuable time in diagnostic procedures.
  3. Cost-Effectiveness: MacConkey Agar is a relatively affordable culture medium, making it accessible to laboratories with limited resources.

Limitations  of MacConkey Agar:

While MA is highly advantageous in many respects, it is not without limitations. Some disadvantages include:

  1. Selectivity Limitations: Although effective in inhibiting most Gram-positive bacteria, MacConkey Agar may allow some Gram-positive strains to grow under certain conditions, potentially leading to false-positive results.
  2. Inability to Detect Non-Lactose Fermenters: MacConkey Agar primarily focuses on lactose fermentation, meaning it may fail to identify important bacterial species that do not ferment lactose.


In the vast realm of microbiology, MacConkey Agar emerges as a stalwart ally, facilitating the identification and differentiation of Gram-negative bacteria. With its selective and differential properties, this remarkable culture medium has revolutionized the field, aiding in the diagnosis of various infections and environmental monitoring. While MA exhibits undeniable advantages, its limitations must be considered for accurate interpretation of results. As the scientific community continues to explore the intricacies of the microbial world, MacConkey Agar remains an invaluable tool, guiding researchers on their journey towards greater understanding.


ASM Microbe Library: MacConkey Agar Plates Protocols

Bacteriological Analytical Manual, 8th Edition, Revision A, 1998.

Hardy Diagnostics: MacConkey Agar

Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., Dehydrated Culture Media: MacConkey Agar

Atlas, R. M. (2010). Handbook of Microbiological Media. CRC Press.

Mubashir Iqbal
Mubashir Iqbal

Mubashir Iqbal is a highly dedicated and motivated Microbiologist with an MPhil in Microbiology from the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. Currently, he is researching the efficacy of commercially available SARS Cov-2 vaccines to neutralize the omicron variant in Pakistan. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Microbiology and has experience in chemical and microbiological analysis of water samples, managing SOPs and documents according to standard ISO 17025. Additionally, he has worked as an internee in BSL 3, Institute of Microbiology, UVAS, where he gained experience in RNA extraction, sample processing, and microscopy.

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