What's the Difference?

CFU (Colony Forming Units) and MPN (Most Probable Number) are two methods used in microbiology to estimate the number of viable microorganisms in a sample. CFU is a technique where a diluted sample is spread on a solid agar medium, and each viable microorganism grows into a visible colony, which is then counted. MPN, on the other hand, is a statistical method that involves inoculating multiple tubes with different dilutions of the sample and observing the presence or absence of growth. By using statistical tables, the MPN can estimate the most probable number of microorganisms in the original sample. While CFU provides a direct count of viable microorganisms, MPN is useful when the sample has a low microbial load or when the microorganisms are difficult to culture.


DefinitionColony Forming UnitsMost Probable Number
MethodCounting colonies on agar platesStatistical estimation based on dilution series
ApplicabilityUsed for viable cell countingUsed for estimating microbial populations
Time RequiredUsually takes 24-48 hoursUsually takes 3-5 days
Sample VolumeUsually requires larger sample volumesUsually requires smaller sample volumes
CostRelatively lowRelatively high

Further Detail


When it comes to measuring the concentration of microorganisms in a sample, two commonly used methods are Colony Forming Units (CFU) and Most Probable Number (MPN). Both CFU and MPN provide valuable information about the microbial load, but they differ in their approach and application. In this article, we will explore the attributes of CFU and MPN, highlighting their strengths and limitations.

CFU: Colony Forming Units

Colony Forming Units (CFU) is a method used to estimate the number of viable microorganisms in a sample. It involves plating a diluted sample onto a solid growth medium and allowing the microorganisms to grow into visible colonies. Each colony is assumed to have originated from a single viable microorganism, and the number of colonies is counted to determine the CFU/mL or CFU/g in the original sample.

One of the key advantages of CFU is its simplicity and ease of use. It does not require specialized equipment and can be performed in a standard microbiology laboratory. CFU also provides information about the viability of microorganisms, as only viable cells are capable of forming colonies. This attribute makes CFU particularly useful in assessing the effectiveness of antimicrobial treatments or evaluating the quality of food and water.

However, CFU has some limitations. It is a time-consuming method, as it requires incubation of the plates for a sufficient period to allow colony formation. Additionally, CFU can underestimate the true microbial load if certain microorganisms do not form visible colonies on the selected growth medium. This can lead to an inaccurate estimation of the microbial concentration.

MPN: Most Probable Number

Most Probable Number (MPN) is a statistical method used to estimate the concentration of microorganisms in a sample. It is based on the principle of dilution and detection, where multiple dilutions of the sample are inoculated into a series of tubes or wells containing a growth medium. The tubes or wells showing growth are then used to calculate the MPN using statistical tables or software.

MPN offers several advantages over CFU. Firstly, it provides a quantitative estimation of the microbial concentration, expressed as MPN/mL or MPN/g. This allows for direct comparison between different samples or monitoring changes in microbial load over time. MPN is also less affected by the inability of certain microorganisms to form visible colonies, as it considers both growth and non-growth in the statistical analysis.

However, MPN has its own limitations. It requires a larger sample volume compared to CFU, as multiple dilutions need to be prepared. This can be challenging when dealing with limited sample volumes or when the microbial load is expected to be low. MPN is also a statistical estimation, and the accuracy of the results depends on the assumptions and limitations of the statistical model used.

Comparison of Attributes

Now let's compare the attributes of CFU and MPN:

1. Measurement Method

CFU relies on visible colony formation, while MPN uses statistical analysis of growth and non-growth in tubes or wells.

2. Viability Assessment

CFU provides information about viable microorganisms, as only viable cells are capable of forming colonies. MPN does not differentiate between viable and non-viable microorganisms.

3. Time Requirement

CFU is a time-consuming method due to the incubation period required for colony formation. MPN is relatively faster, as the results can be obtained within a shorter time frame.

4. Sample Volume

CFU requires a smaller sample volume compared to MPN, making it suitable for situations where sample volume is limited.

5. Accuracy

CFU can underestimate the true microbial load if certain microorganisms do not form visible colonies. MPN considers both growth and non-growth, providing a more comprehensive estimation of the microbial concentration.


Both CFU and MPN are valuable methods for assessing the concentration of microorganisms in a sample. CFU offers simplicity and viability assessment, while MPN provides a quantitative estimation and is less affected by the inability to form visible colonies. The choice between CFU and MPN depends on the specific requirements of the analysis, such as the need for viability assessment, time constraints, sample volume limitations, and the desired level of accuracy. Understanding the attributes of CFU and MPN allows researchers and microbiologists to select the most appropriate method for their specific applications.

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