Using Polystyrene in Tissue Culture Plastic

The most extensively used cell culture material is transparent, inexpensive, and disposable plasma treated polystyrene, or tissue culture plastic (TCP), not only because of its qualities as mentioned but also because of its biological affinity.

Plasma-Treated Polystyrene

Relying on their connections with other cells, mammalian cells are anchorage dependent. The extracellular matrix (ECM) and/or material substrates to control vital functions such as intra and extracellular communication, apoptosis (programmed cell death), function, morphology, and differentiation.

To drive these processes, transmembrane proteins, cell adhesion molecules (CAMs), and integrins anchor to their surroundings and send signals through the cytoskeleton1. Platforms must mimic the biological environment from which the specific cell type is derived in order to produce morphologically accurate and functional cell populations in tissue culture.

Untreated polystyrene surfaces are mainly composed of hydrophobic phenyl groups, which are not found in the body naturally and are detrimental to cell anchorage. Plasma treatment replaces these phenyls with hydrophilic carbonyl, amine, or hydroxyl containing functional groups (depending on the process gas) which are a lot more suitable for cell adhesion2.

Furthermore, the negatively charged (oxygen or air) and hydrophilic surface of tissue culture plastic heightens nonspecific adsorption of cell media constituents and allows subsequent coatings which further promote cell adhesion.

Plasma Treatment

Even though commercially available tissue culture plastic vessels (plasma treated flasks, plates and wells) are readily available for cell culture, for many reasons researchers could benefit from adding plasma treatment to their own protocols.

For example, following plasma treatment polystyrene surfaces undergo hydrophobic recovery, lowering the surface energy and, depending on the supplier, increasing the water contact angle to anywhere between 50 and 80 degrees3. The contact angle which is achieved reflects the availability of hydrophilic functional groups, the optimal amount of which may fluctuate between different cell types.

Plasma treatment can be utilized to optimize the contact angle for a specific application through experimentation. Furthermore, a contact angle between 50 and 80 degrees is not enough for the addition of many biologically relevant coatings. Enhanced surface wetting achieved by plasma treatment enhances the quality of biomimetic coatings.


Lastly, customized TCP vessels are more appropriate for some applications than commercial TCP vessels. Polystyrene films, micromolded devices and scaffolds supply researchers with new opportunities to mimic the biological environment and so, improve cell proliferation, function, and morphology.


[1] Khalili AA, Ahmad MR. “A Review of Cell Adhesion Studies for Biomedical and Biological Applications”. Int J Mol Sci. (2015) 16: 18149-84.

[2] Lerman MJ, Lembong J, Muramoto S, Gillen G, Fisher JP. “The Evolution of Polystyrene as a Cell Culture Material”. Tissue Eng Part B Rev. (2018) 24: 359–372.

[3] Zeiger AS, Hinton B, Van vliet KJ. “Why the dish makes a difference: quantitative comparison of polystyrene culture surfaces.” Acta Biomater. (2013) 9: 735461.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Harrick Plasma.

For more information on this source, please visit Harrick Plasma.


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