Modeling bacterial growth

I do a lot of molecular cloning, which means a lot of transformations of chemically competent e.coli. Using 50 uL of purchased competent bacteria would cost about $10 per transformation, which would be an AWFUL waste of money, especially with this being a highly recurring expense in the lab. I had never made my own competent cells before, so I had to figure this out shortly after starting my lab. It took a couple of days of dedicated effort, but it ended up being quite simple (I’ll link to my protocol a bit later on). Though my frozen stocks ended up working fine, I became quite used to creating fresh cells every time I need to do a transformation. The critical step here is taking a saturated overnight starter culture, and diluting it so you can harvest a larger volume of log-phase bacteria some short time later. A range of ODs [optical density here defined as absorbance at 600 nm] work, though I like to use bacteria at an OD around 0.2. I had gotten pretty good at being able to eyeball when a culture was ready for harvesting (for LB in a 250 mL flask, I found this was right when I started seeing turbidity), but I figured there was a better way to know when it’s worth sampling and harvesting.

I started keeping good notes about 1) the starting density of my prep culture (OD of the overnight culture divided by the dilution factor), 2) the amount of time I left the prep culture growing, and 3) the final OD the prep culture. I converted everything into cell density which is a bit more intuitive than OD (I found 1 OD[A600] of my bacteria roughly corresponded to 5e5 bacteria per mL), and worked in those units from there on out. Knowing bacteria exhibit exponential growth, I log base-10 transformed the counts. Much like the increasing number of COVID-19 deaths experienced by the US from early March through early April, exponential growth becomes linear in log-transformed space. I figured I could thus estimate the growth of my prep culture of competent cells by making a multi-variate linear model, where the final density of the bacteria was dependent on the starting bacterial density and how long I left it growing. I figured the lag-phase from taking the saturated culture and sticking it into cold-LB would end up being a constant in the model. Here’s my dataset, and here’s my R Markdown analysis script. My linear model seemed to perform pretty well, as you can see in the below plot. As of writing this, the Pearson’s r was 0.98.

The aforementioned analysis script has a final chunk that allows you to input the starting OD of your starter culture, and assuming a 1000-fold dilution, tells you how long you likely need to wait to hit the right OD of your prep culture. Then again. I don’t think anyone really wants to enter this info into a computer every time they want to set up a culture, so I made a handy little “look-up plot”, shown below, where a lab member could just look at their starter culture OD on the x-axis, choose the dilution they want to do (staying 2x within 1000-fold since I don’t know if smaller dilutions can affect bacterial competency), and figure out when they need to be back to harvest (or at least stick the culture on ice). I’ve now printed this plot out and left it by my bacterial shaker-incubator.

I’m still much more of a wet-lab scientist than a computational one. That said, god damn do I still think the moderate amount of computational work I can do is still empowering.