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Kenneth Todar currently teaches Microbiology 100 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His main teaching interests include general microbiology, bacterial diversity, microbial ecology and pathogenic bacteriology.

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Overview Of Bacteriology (page 1)

(This chapter has 6 pages)

© Kenneth Todar, PhD


The Bacteria are a group of single-cell microorganisms with procaryotic cellular configuration. The genetic material (DNA) of procaryotic cells exists unbound in the cytoplasm of the cells. There is no nuclear membrane, which is the definitive characteristic of eucaryotic cells such as those that make up, fungi, protista, plants and animals. Until recently, bacteria were the only known type of procaryotic cell, and the discipline of biology related to their study is called bacteriology. In the 1980's, with the outbreak of molecular techniques applied to phylogeny of life, another group of procaryotes was defined and informally named "archaebacteria". This group of procaryotes has since been renamed Archaea and has been awarded biological Domain status on the level with Bacteria and Eucarya. The current science of bacteriology includes the study of both domains of procaryotic cells, but the name "bacteriology" is not likely to change to reflect the inclusion of archaea in the discipline. Actually, many archaea have been studied as intensively and as long as their bacterial counterparts, except with the notion that they were bacteria.

Figure 1. The cyanobacterium Anabaena. American Society for Microbiology. Two (not uncommon) exceptions that procaryotes are unicellular and undifferentiated are seen in Anabaena: 1. The organism lives as a multicellular filament or chain of cells. Procaryotes are considered "unicellular organisms" because all the cells in a filament or colony are of the same type, and any one individual cell can give rise to an exact filament or colony; 2. The predominant photosynthetic (bright yellow-green) cells do differentiate into another type of cell: the obviously large "empty" cells occasionally seen along a filament are differentiated cells in which nitrogen fixation, but not photosynthesis, takes place.

The Origin of Life

When life arose on Earth about 4 billion years ago, the first types of cells to evolve were procaryotic cells. For approximately 2 billion years, procaryotic-type cells were the only form of life on Earth. The oldest known sedimentary rocks, from Greenland, are about 3.8 billion years old. The oldest known fossils are procaryotic cells, 3.5 billion years in age, found in Western Australia and South Africa. The nature of these fossils, and the chemical composition of the rocks in which they are found, indicates that lithotrophic and fermentative modes of metabolism were the first to evolve in early procaryotes. Photosynthesis developed in bacteria a bit later, at least 3 billion years ago. Anoxygenic photosynthesis (bacterial photosynthesis, which is anaerobic and does not produce O2) preceded oxygenic photosynthesis (plant-type photosynthesis, which yields O2). However, oxygenic photosynthesis also arose in procaryotes, specifically in the cyanobacteria, which existed millions of years before the evolution of green algae and plants. Larger, more complicated eucaryotic cells did not appear until much later, between 1.5 and 2 billion years ago.

Figure 2. Opalescent Pool in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming USA. K. Todar. Conditions for life in this environment are similar to Earth over 2 billion years ago. In these types of hot springs, the orange, yellow and brown colors are due to pigmented photosynthetic bacteria which make up the microbial mats. The mats are literally teeming with bacteria. Some of these bacteria such as Synechococcus conduct oxygenic photosynthesis, while others such as Chloroflexus conduct anoxygenic photosynthesis. Other non-photosynthetic bacteria, as well as thermophilic and acidophilic Archaea, are also residents of the hot spring community.

The archaea and bacteria differ fundamentally in their structure from eucaryotic cells, which always contain a membrane-enclosed nucleus, multiple chromosomes, and various other membranous organelles such as mitochondria, chloroplasts, the golgi apparatus, vacuoles, etc. Unlike plants and animals, archaea and bacteria are unicellular organisms that do not develop or differentiate into multicellular forms. Some bacteria grow in filaments or masses of cells, but each cell in the colony is identical and capable of independent existence. The cells may be adjacent to one another because they did not separate after cell division or because they remained enclosed in a common sheath or slime secreted by the cells, but typically there is no continuity or communication between the cells.

The Universal Tree of Life

On the basis of small subunit ribosomal RNA (ssrRNA) analysis, the contemporary Tree of Life gives rise to three cellular "Domains": Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya (Figure 3). Bacteria (formerly known as eubacteria) and Archaea (formerly called archaebacteria) share the procaryotic type of cellular configuration, but otherwise are not related to one another any more closely than they are to the eucaryotic domain, Eucarya. Between the two procaryotes, Archaea are apparently more closely related to Eucarya than are the Bacteria. Eucarya consists of all eucaryotic cell-types, including protista, fungi, plants and animals.

Figure 3. The Universal Tree of Life as derived from sequencing of ssrRNA. N. Pace. Note the three major domains of living organisms: Archaea, Bacteria and Eucarya. The "evolutionary distance" between two organisms is proportional to the measurable distance between the end of a branch to a node to the end of a comparative branch.  For example, in Eucarya, humans (Homo) are more closely related to corn (Zea) than to slime molds (Dictyostelium); or in Bacteria, E. coli is more closely related to Agrobacterium than to Thermus.

Size and Distribution of Bacteria and Archaea

Most procaryotic cells are very small compared to eucaryotic cells. A typical bacterial cell is about 1 micrometer in diameter or width, while most eucaryotic cells are from 10 to 100 micrometers in diameter. Eucaryotic cells have a much greater volume of cytoplasm and a much lower surface: volume ratio than procaryotic cells. A typical procaryotic cell is about the size of a eucaryotic mitochondrion. Since procaryotes are too small to be seen except with the aid of a microscope, it is usually not appreciated that they are the most abundant form of life on the planet, both in terms of biomass and total numbers of species. For example, in the sea, procaryotes make up 90 percent of the total combined weight of all organisms. In a single gram of fertile agricultural soil there may be in excess of 109 bacterial cells, outnumbering all eucaryotic cells there by 10,000 : 1. About 3,000 distinct species of bacteria and archaea are recognized, but this number is probably less than one percent of all the species in nature. These unknown procaryotes, far in excess of undiscovered or unstudied plants, are a tremendous reserve of genetic material and genetic information in nature that awaits exploitation.

Procaryotes are found in all of the habitats where eucaryotes live, but, as well, in many natural environments considered too extreme or inhospitable for eucaryotic cells. Thus, the outer limits of life on Earth (hottest, coldest, driest, etc.) are usually defined by the existence of procaryotes. Where eucaryotes and procaryotes live together, there may be mutualistic associations between the organisms that allow both to survive or flourish. The organelles of eucaryotes (mitochondria and chloroplasts) are thought to be remnants of Bacteria that invaded, or were captured by, primitive eucaryotes in the evolutionary past. Numerous types of eucaryotic cells that exist today are inhabited by endosymbiotic procaryotes.

From a metabolic standpoint, the procaryotes are extraordinarily diverse, and they exhibit several types of metabolism that are rarely or never seen in eucaryotes. For example, the biological processes of nitrogen fixation (conversion of atmospheric nitrogen gas to ammonia) and methanogenesis (production of methane) are metabolically-unique to procaryotes and have an enormous impact on the nitrogen and carbon cycles in nature. Unique mechanisms for energy production and photosynthesis are also seen among the Archaea and Bacteria.

The lives of plants and animals are dependent upon the activities of bacterial cells. Bacteria and archaea enter into various types of symbiotic relationships with plants and animals that usually benefit both organisms, although a few bacteria are agents of disease.

The metabolic activities of procaryotes in soil habitats have an enormous impact on soil fertility that can affect agricultural practices and crop yields. In the global environment, procaryotes are absolutely essential to drive the cycles of elements that make up living systems, i.e., the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur cycles. The origins of the plant cell chloroplast and plant-type (oxygenic) photosynthesis are found in procaryotes. Most of the earth's atmospheric oxygen may have been produced by free-living bacterial cells. The bacteria fix nitrogen and a substantial amount of CO2, as well.

Bacteria or bacterial products (including their genes) can be used to increase crop yield or plant resistance to disease, or to cure or prevent plant disease. Bacterial products include antibiotics to fight infectious disease, as well as components for vaccines used to prevent infectious disease. Because of their simplicity and our relative understanding of their biological processes, the bacteria provide convenient laboratory models for study of the molecular biology, genetics, and physiology of all types of cells, including plant and animal cells.

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Kenneth Todar is an emeritus lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught microbiology to undergraduate students at The University of Texas, University of Alaska and University of Wisconsin since 1969.

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