Gibco MEM and FBS bottles behind pipette

Fetal bovine serum (FBS) is a byproduct of harvesting cattle for the meatpacking industry—it’s used extensively by both academic and industrial researchers as a supplement to basal growth medium in cell culture applications. FBS is the liquid portion that remains after blood is drawn from bovine fetus coagulates. It’s the most widely used serum supplement for in-vitro cell culture (for eukaryotic cells).1

Additionally, it plays a vital role in the research of human and veterinary vaccines and has applications in stem cell research. It’s also, at times, used for cloning and gene targeting.

Thus, when it comes to answering what does fetal bovine serum do, the answer is multifaceted. Read on to learn more about fetal bovine serum so you can see how it affects research within stem cells and vaccines.

What is fetal bovine serum?

If you don’t know what fetal bovine serum does you are not alone.

How is fetal bovine serum made?

The manufacturing of FBS is highly regulated, ensuring strict safety guidelines and quality control testing.

The following is the general process of fetal bovine serum collection:

  1. As a byproduct of the meatpacking industry, fetal blood is collected at the time of harvest from abattoirs where cows pass both veterinary pre- and post-mortem inspections
  2. Fetal bovine blood is collected from deceased pregnant cows in government approved facilities
  3. Blood is drawn via cardiac puncture from the expired fetus in a closed, aseptic system using best practices to regulate hemoglobin and endotoxin levels
  4. The blood is refrigerated to encourage clotting
  5. Blood is then processed into raw serum

FBS should always be stored between ≤-10°C until its intended use.

Primary use of fetal bovine serum

The primary use of FBS is a supplement for in vitro cell culture. Its unique biological makeup promotes rapid cell growth, thus making it a product that yields a high efficacy.

Brief history of cell culture media

Ringer's cell culture medium was developed by Sydney Ringer in 1882, and was the first instance of in vitro cultivation of animal tissue. Over the next few decades, scientific innovation led to the development of the first animal cell cultures, then synthetic media. The 1940s saw the establishment of cell lines, basal media, and research into protein-free media.

Judy Pogoda-Leone, a Senior Manager of Technical Affairs who has worked within the Global Sera program at Thermo Fisher Scientific for over 35 years, recounts that researchers and manufacturers started by using horse serum. However, through this work, “they didn’t get the level of proliferation and growth that they really needed to see, so FBS was looked at as another protein derivative so that cells could actually grow and proliferate.” Researchers and manufacturers found that FBS provided a much more extensive offering to how those cells would perform overall, and thus the use of FBS started gaining more traction.

Benefits of fetal bovine serum

Serum is added to culture medium at a concentration of 2-10% to provide attachment factors, nutrients, and hormones for mammalian cells, as well as to be a buffer against disruptions like pH changes and endotoxins. FBS has a high content of embryonic growth promoting factors like hormones, carrier proteins, and macromolecular proteins. It also has low levels of antibodies and other growth-inhibiting components.

Chris Scanlon, Market Development Manager within the FBS program, explains that the strong benefit of FBS lies in the advantages of these factors. “FBS in general is the most favorable of the serums because of the fact it’s from a fetus - it’s yet to be exposed to the environment and have any potential chemicals get into the serum and impact the culture.”

Another advantage Chris cites is the universality of FBS. “Horse serum might be good for certain types of applications, but FBS is that universal serum that you can use in pretty much any application.” For researchers who require serums for multiple different applications within a single project, FBS is the best choice because it functions for all purposes and thereby streamlines product usage.

FBS use in vaccines for viruses

Inoculation has been in use in China and India since at least the 11th Century AD.2 In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English physician, injected a young boy, James Phipps, with material from a cowpox vesicle sourced from Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid. Two months later, young James was inoculated with smallpox and developed no symptoms. This is the fundamental idea behind fetal bovine serum in vaccines. They contain a dead or weakened form of a disease-carrying bacteria or virus that triggers antibody production and protects against future development of the disease.

The cell growth of weakened strains of pathogens requires specific growth media, some requiring animal-derived products. Fetal bovine serum has been found to exceed cell culture testing standards and contains several growth factors for mammalian cells.

Other uses of fetal bovine serum (FBS)

Fetal bovine serum has additional applications in both research and industry:

  • Biotechnology research and production
  • Stem cell research
  • Cloning
  • Animal diagnostics
  • In vitro fertilization
  • Biopharmaceuticals
  • Gene therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Synthetic proteins

Thermo Fisher Scientific continuously strives to further the innovation in their product offering to help researchers across these applications. One specific tool that helps achieve this is the iMATCH Sera Lot Matching Tool, which helps FBS specialists find product matches based on what they’ve used previously or what their research necessitates. Chris Scanlon describes, “This is something that’s unique to Thermo Fisher Scientific - we call it the ‘iMATCH Guarantee,’ where customers are guaranteed similar results to their previous FBS lot. We know what customers need and we can match that or better in order to help ensure consistency so customers know their cells will always perform the same.”

Quality control

Thermo Fisher Scientific has incorporated the highest level of quality specifications to meet our customer’s research requirements.

Effective February 12, 2014, ISIA traceability certification was awarded to Gibco by Thermo Fisher Scientific. This certification provides researchers with peace of mind and the confidence that Gibco sera are manufactured under the highest traceability standards, offering quality and performance for your research.

What does traceability certification mean?

  • We maintain records of traceability from origin throughout the supply chain for all serum batches.
  • We maintain the history for both quality and quantity of material, from point of collection through final processing.
  • We retain the documentation supporting all stages of processing, transportation, and commercial transactions.

Every batch of FBS goes through stringent quality control before they are given a Certificate of Analysis and allowed for sale.3

These are some of the testing criteria:

  • Endotoxin testing
  • Mycoplasma testing
  • 9CFR virus testing
  • Biochemical and hormone profile
  • EMA virus testing

Moreover, different types of research require differently treated FBS. Some other forms of treatment and testing include: exosome depletion, heat inactivation, charcoal treatment, dialyzed, gamma-irradiation, low IgG, stem cell culture.

Final thoughts

Fetal bovine serum has dramatically increased the pace of biomedical science. As a supplement to growth culture media, it’s unparalleled. Additionally, strict regulations and rigorous quality controls ensure a safe and high-quality product. However, the amount of FBS available is variable; as a byproduct of the beef industry, environmental factors have an effect on the price and availability of FBS.

Thus, if you’re looking for high-quality and consistent FBS, Thermo Fisher Scientific is a leading supplier globally.

That means you’re in the right place.

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