Producing agar is truly a simple task. The most basic agar is just that, agar and water. About 20 grams of agar to one liter of water will gel just fine under nearly all home laboratory conditions. Regardless of what organisms you are working with however, you will likely want to supplement this basic mix with extra nutrients. One good supplement is yeast or yeast extract. Two grams of yeast, or one gram of yeast extract per liter of agar solution will greatly extend the range of microbes that can utilize the media, and mycological specimens will retain their original characteristics much longer with a more nutritive agar.
It should be noted that adding excessive nutrients hinders rather than helps. Too many nutrients, and the agar will support too many species, and will tend to result in higher contamination rates. You are better off finding a happy medium in between. No pun intended!
One of the most basic formulas for agar, and one that works well, is as follows:
Alternating basic agar types is a good way to help maintain culture strength. One might wish to swap the above formula with a potato dextrose agar after ever generation of two. Potato dextrose agar, or PDA generally contains the following:
You can check out my list of selected media types taken from published material. Not all of these are intended for a wide range of organisms. Where the media was meant to have a restricted use, I've tried to document its intended use. I would encourage persons just starting out to stick to the two basic formulas I've supplied on this page until they have a little practice and know what to expect.
A word about sterilizing agar is in order. You might get away with sterilizing agar in a hot water bath at around 100C for an hour. I wouldn't count on it however. Even if you get away with it once or twice, you are likely to have problems with it sooner or later. Instead I would recommend that if you are serious about this at all, you should get a pressure cooker. Preferably one with variable pressure settings, at least for 10 and 15 pounds. A check of garage sales, flea markets and auction garage sales will often yield a very useable and affordable cooker. Pressure cookers are very easy to use and very safe to use when operated properly. However you must operate them according to the instructions or you risk causing yourself grievous bodily harm. Sterilization in the pressure cooker can be accomplished with 30 minutes at 15 psi. Resist the temptation to think that more is better. Pressure cooking for excessively long periods is as bad or worse than for too short a period of time. Excess sterilization can carmelize the sugars and/or agar in the media. This is harmful to most microbes, and will often skew the results of whatever you were working on. Using a narrow necked container to hold the agar facilitates aseptic pouring. After filling the container with the agar to be sterilized, but before pressure cooking it, fit a cotton plug into the opening of the container, and wrap the top with tinfoil. Allow the pressure cooker to return to normal atmospheric pressure before opening. It is very important to prevent sudden changes in temperature while cooking the agar, and while cooling it. Quick changes will cause the agar to boil over. Also do not needlessly play with the steam vent or weight. A sudden release of steam from the cooker during processing will cause decompression inside the cooker, resulting in a boil over, even after the unit is removed from the heat. When the agar is warm to the touch, but cooled enough to comfortably handle, you are ready to pour your plates or slants.
Autoclaving is very similiar to pressure cooking in that they both use steam under pressure to achieve higher temperatures. Autoclaves are more sophisticated than pressure cookers and tend to be more efficient and effective. Small models are priced within reach of the amateur, but certainly not for the beginner just starting out. For the sake of this web site, the terms autoclaving and pressure cooking will be used interchangeably. Please be advised that there are in reality important differences between autoclaves and pressure cookers, but this will not concern us here.