Laboratory incubators are used to grow and maintain cell cultures and are available in a variety of sizes and types. The incubator market is divided into two main categories: the gassed incubators which are the CO2 incubators, and the non gassed or microbiological incubators. The CO2 incubators are mainly used for cell culture and provide control over factors such as temperature, CO2 for maintaining proper pH levels, and humidity, all of which affect cell growth. CO2 incubators are typically heated to 37°C and maintain 95% relative humidity and a CO2 level of 5 percent. Microbiological incubators are essentially temperature-controlled ovens that work within the biological range of 5ºC to 70ºC and are mostly used for growing and storing bacterial cultures. Most incubator units are water-jacketed, air-jacketed or use direct heat to maintain the temperature around the culture chamber.
Available from 1.4 (table-top) to 40 cubic feet (freezer-like), incubators generally last about 10 years and can be used in a wide variety of applications including cell culture, biochemical studies, hematological studies, pharmaceutical and food processing. Shaking incubators are often used for cell aeration and solubility studies. Refrigerated Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) incubators, with a temperature range of 20°C degrees to 45°C below ambient, are commonly used for applications such as insect and plant studies, fermentation studies and bacterial culturing.
“The cell culture market today is thriving predominantly due to new applications in areas like stem cell research and hence there is more potential for growth in these products,” says Douglas Wernerspach, Global Product Manager, CO2 Incubation at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Many manufacturers are working toward addressing some of the common challenges associated with culturing cells, the most important of which is reducing aerial contamination. A number of incubators now offer a high-temperature decontamination cycle that works much like a self-cleaning oven. “With the press of a button, the customer can heat-sterilize the incubator and get rid of any decontaminants or hazardous spills,” says Wernerspach. This option also eliminates the need to take apart individual components for autoclaving. “It’s convenient, safe, and ensures proper, uniform cleaning that can be recorded as a part of standard operating procedures.”
Besides units that can be activated when needed, there are also continuous contamination prevention units that work all the time and do not have to be initiated manually. One technology uses HEPA filtration to continuously cycle the air and remove airborne particulates and contaminants. The other technology that is gaining a lot of interest is the use of incubators that have interiors made of solid copper components. “Solid copper or 100% pure copper is naturally antimicrobial and for the first time the U.S. EPA has also recognized copper, a nonchemical, as an effective antimicrobial agent,” says Wernerspach. This has led to a number of companies developing copper-based products.
Incubators also come with options that can further increase user ease and convenience. Thermo Fisher has recently introduced a CO2 incubator with an integrated, interactive touch screen display built into the control panel. “It has all kinds of built-in user prompts and safety features so that you won’t mistakenly change settings and damage the cultures inside,” says Wernerspach. “It also has the ability to operate in many different languages. Individual users can customize the display to how they want to see it, which helps to minimize user error and training.” Additional options include data storage and communications packages that enable data logging to the computer, removable shelves and programmable alarms for temperature set points and duration.
At the end of the day what customers really care about is having a reliable unit in which to grow their cells. Hence, the lab environment, the application and the customer’s comfort level with the technology is what plays a big role in the selection of the equipment. “Ultimately you want to go with something that best meets your requirements,” says Wernerspach.