Online Textbook Bacteriology is continuously updated and includes information on Staphylococcus, MRSA, Streptococcus, E. coli, anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis, Lyme disease and other bacterial diseases of humans.
Kenneth Todar is the author of the Online Textbook of Bacteriology and an emeritus lecturer at the University of encourages people to wear a FDA approved face mask during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Online Textbook of Bacteriology is a general and medical microbiology text and includes discussion of staph, MRSA, strep, Anthrax, E. coli, cholera, tuberculosis, Lyme Disease and other bacterial pathogens.
Kenneth Todar, PhDKenneth Todar's Online Textbook of Bacteriology Home PageOnline Textbook of Bacteriology Table of ContentsInformation about materials for teaching bacteriology.Contact Kenneth Todar.

Web Review of Todar's Online Textbook of Bacteriology. "The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly"

Tag words: bacterial structure, flagellum, flagella, pilus, pili, fimbriae, capsule, S-layer, glycocalyx, slime layer, biofilm, outer membrane, LPS, cell wall, peptidoglycan, murein, teichoic acid, plasma membrane, cell membrane, phospholipid bilayer, transport system, proton motive force, pmf, ATPase, DNA, chromosome, nucleoid, ribosome, 30S subunit, 50S subunit, 16S rRNA, inclusion, PHB, glycogen, carboxysome, endospore, parasporal crystal.

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

Bacillus cereus bacteria.Print this Page

Structure and Function of Bacterial Cells (page 4)

(This chapter has 10 pages)

© Kenneth Todar, PhD

The Cell Envelope: capsules, cell walls and cell membranes

The cell envelope is a descriptive term for the several layers of material that envelope or enclose the protoplasm of the cell. The cell protoplasm (cytoplasm) is surrounded by the plasma membrane, a cell wall and a capsule. The cell wall itself is a layered structure in Gram-negative bacteria. All cells have a membrane, which is the essential and definitive characteristic of a "cell". Almost all procaryotes have a cell wall to prevent damage to the underlying protoplast. Outside the cell wall, foremost as a surface structure, may be a polysaccharide capsule or glycocalyx.

Figure 9. Profiles of the cell envelope the Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. The Gram-positive wall is a uniformly thick layer external to the plasma membrane. It is composed mainly of peptidoglycan (murein). The Gram-negative wall appears thin and multilayered. It consists of a relatively thin peptidoglycan sheet between the plasma membrane and a phospholipid-lipopolysaccharide outer membrane. The space between the inner (plasma) and outer membranes (wherein the peptidoglycan resides) is called the periplasm.


Most procaryotes contain some sort of a polysaccharide layer outside of the cell wall polymer. In a general sense, this layer is called a capsule. A true capsule is a discrete detectable layer of polysaccharides deposited outside the cell wall. A less discrete structure or matrix which embeds the cells is a called a slime layer or a biofilm. A type of capsule found in bacteria called a glycocalyx is a thin layer of tangled polysaccharide fibers which occurs on  surface of cells growing in nature (as opposed to the laboratory). Some microbiologists refer to all capsules as glycocalyx and do not differentiate microcapsules.

Figure 10. Bacterial capsules outlined by India ink viewed by light microscopy. This is a true capsule, a discrete layer of polysaccharide surrounding the cells. Sometimes bacterial cells are embedded more randomly in a polysaccharide matrix called a slime layer or biofilm. Polysaccharide films that may inevitably be present on the surfaces of bacterial cells, but which cannot be detected visually, are called glycocalyx.

Figure 11. Negative stain of Streptococcus pyogenes viewed by transmission electron microscopy (28,000X). The halo around the chain of cells is the hyaluronic acid capsule that surrounds the exterior of the bacteria. The septa between dividing pairs of cells may also be seen. Electron micrograph of Streptococcus pyogenes by Maria Fazio and Vincent A. Fischetti, Ph.D. with permission. The Laboratory of Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunology, Rockefeller University.

Capsules are generally composed of polysaccharide; rarely they contain amino sugars or peptides (Table 4).

Table 4. Chemical composition of some bacterial capsules
Bacterium Capsule composition Structural subunits
Gram-positive Bacteria

Bacillus anthracis polypeptide (polyglutamic acid) D-glutamic acid
Bacillus megaterium polypeptide and polysaccharide D-glutamic acid, amino sugars, sugars
Streptococcus mutans polysaccharide (dextran) glucose
Streptococcus pneumoniae polysaccharides sugars, amino sugars, uronic acids
Streptococcus pyogenes polysaccharide (hyaluronic acid) N-acetyl-glucosamine and glucuronic acid
Gram-negative Bacteria

Acetobacter xylinum polysaccharide (cellulose) glucose
Escherichia coli polysaccharide (colonic acid) glucose, galactose, fucose glucuronic acid
Pseudomonas aeruginosa polysaccharide mannuronic acid
Azotobacter vinelandii polysaccharide glucuronic acid
Agrobacterium tumefaciens polysaccharide (glucan) glucose

Capsules have several functions and often have multiple functions in a particular organism. Like fimbriae, capsules, slime layers, and glycocalyx often mediate adherence of cells to surfaces. Capsules also protect bacterial cells from engulfment by predatory protozoa or white blood cells (phagocytes), or from attack by antimicrobial agents of plant or animal origin. Capsules in certain soil bacteria protect cells from perennial effects of drying or desiccation. Capsular materials (e.g. dextrans) may be overproduced when bacteria are fed sugars to become reserves of carbohydrate for subsequent metabolism.

Figure 12. Colonies of Bacillus anthracis. The slimy or mucoid appearance of a bacterial colony is usually evidence of capsule production. In the case of B. anthracis, the capsule is composed of poly-D-glutamate. The capsule is an essential determinant of virulence to the bacterium. In the early stages of colonization and infection the capsule protects the bacteria from assaults by the immune and phagocytic systems.

Some bacteria produce slime materials to adhere and float themselves as colonial masses in their environments. Other bacteria produce slime materials to attach themselves to a surface or substrate. Bacteria may attach to surface, produce slime, divide and produce microcolonies within the slime layer, and construct a biofilm, which becomes an enriched and protected environment for themselves and other bacteria.

A classic example of biofilm construction in nature is the formation of dental plaque mediated by the oral bacterium, Streptococcus mutans. The bacteria adhere specifically to the pellicle of the tooth by means of a protein on the cell surface. The bacteria grow and synthesize a dextran capsule which binds them to the enamel and forms a biofilm some 300-500 cells in thickness. The bacteria are able to cleave sucrose (provided by the animal diet) into glucose plus fructose. The fructose is fermented as an energy source for bacterial growth. The glucose is polymerized into an extracellular dextran polymer that cements the bacteria to tooth enamel and becomes the matrix of dental plaque. The dextran slime can be depolymerized to glucose for use as a carbon source, resulting in production of lactic acid within the biofilm (plaque) that decalcifies the enamel and leads to dental caries or bacterial infection of the tooth.

Figure 13. (Left) Dental plaque revealed by a harmless red dye. (Right)  Human dental plaque. Transmission electron micrograph by Marilee Sellers, Northern Arizona University.

Another important characteristic of capsules may be their ability to block some step in the phagocytic process and thereby prevent bacterial cells from being engulfed or destroyed by phagocytes. For example, the primary determinant of virulence of the pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae is its polysaccharide capsule, which prevents ingestion of pneumococci by alveolar macrophages. Bacillus anthracis survives phagocytic engulfment because the lysosomal enzymes of the phagocyte cannot initiate an attack on the poly-D-glutamate capsule of the bacterium. Bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, that construct a biofilm made of extracellular slime when colonizing tissues, are also resistant to phagocytes, which cannot penetrate the biofilm.

chapter continued

Previous Page

© Kenneth Todar, Ph.D. All rights reserved. -

Kenneth Todar, PhD | Home | Table of Contents

Kenneth Todar has taught microbiology to undergraduate students at The University of Texas, University of Alaska and University of Wisconsin since 1969.

© 2020 Kenneth Todar, PhD - Madison, Wisconsin