Arxiu d'etiquetes: basic microbiology

Basic microbiology (II):thousands of bacterial forms

Imagine a bacterium. What image has come to your mind? You have possibly thought of elongated like a Bacillus, type E. coli bacteria or into a small ball. For years, we have associated the bacterial morphology to a few basic shapes, but there are a multitude of forms in the environment. Discover them in the second chapter of Basic Microbiology!


Microorganisms represent a very varied group of organisms invisible to the naked eye. In the previous chapter previous chapter of this article collection we talk about the microbe’s size and in this second chapter of basic microbiology we are going to talk about the different morphologies or forms that exist of the group bacteria and the archaea group (extremophile bacteria).

Usually, when we started the trip in the bacterial world, found that bacteria have a series of basic shapes: coccus (spherical or berry), bacillus (shaped) and spirillum (coiled), as well as its aggregations. These are formed by the union of the cells after division. For example, there are species that are pairs of cocci (known as diplococci), others form long chains of cocci (such as Streptococcus sp.), others are arranged in three-dimensional cubic groupings (like Sarcina sp.) and others formed structures like clusters of grapes (Staphylococcus sp.).

Cocci and its aggregations (Image: Aula virtual).

In the case of rod-shaped bacteria, we can find also different groups such as the diplobacillus or the streptobacillus (such as for example Bacillus cereus). Apart we can find many variations of bacillus: there are shorter and more rounded (numerous coccobacillus, as it would be the case of Yersinia pestis), there are Pleomorphic (who have one or more forms depending on the phase of the cell cycle), finished in tip (as for example Epulopiscium fishelsoni), curved or crooked.

Rod shaped bacteria and its aggregation (image: Aula Virtual)


Finally, the spiral shapes appear as it would be the case of the vibrios (in the form of comma, as Vibrio cholerae), the spirils (as Rhodospirillium rubrum) or spirochaetes (Spirochaeta stenostrepta).

Spiral bacteria (Image: Aula Virtual).


But why morphology is generalized to these forms?

Should be remember that it microbiology always had been a medical discipline and these forms are the more recurrent in the pathogenic bacteria. Now, with the rise of Microbiology, it has been observed that in the environment there is a huge variety of different morphologies, some much more complex that is known so far. The following graphic is result of an elaborate study of David T. Kysela and shows the true morphological variety that exists in the bacterial world.

Differents bacterial morphologies around the Philogenetic tree (Image: David T. Kysela)


Some individual bacteria present peculiar structures, as for example stretching narrow known as prostheca. This would be the case of Caulobacter sp. and Hyphomicrobium sp. These stretching allow to anchor the bacterium to a solid surface. There are bacteria that can also present stems, spines, or tips.

Hyphomicrobium sp. with their prostheca (Image: Holm Niels)

Other bacteria have unusual shapes. For example, Halophyte bacteria (that support high levels of salt concentration) like Stella sp. and Haloquadratum sp. Form a very odd aggregation. The first has a star shape and second rectangular shape.

Diagram of the characteristic shape of Stella vacuolata (a) and Haloquadratum walsbyi (b). (Image: Aula virtual).

Haloarcula japonica is an individual halophyte bacteria as the previous ones, presenting a very striking morphology. As we can see in the first section of the image, in certain stages of the cell cycle has triangular shape. On the other hand, Pyrodictium abyssi (b) presents one of the most striking morphologies, since it has the form of a  “y”letter.

a) Haloarcula japonica (Image: Nite) b) Pyrodictium abyssi (Image: Benjamin Cummings)

Also, there are very characteristics bacterial associations, as for example long chains of organisms that give an aspect of filamentous bacteria. This is the case of the bacterial phylum known as Chloroflexi, where green sulfur bacteria like Chloroflexus sp. are classified (b). Another very striking grouping are the palisades. These are characterized by bacterial rods with vertical connections. A well-known example is the case of Simonsiella muelleri (b).

a) Microphotography of Chloroflexus sp. (Image: JGI Genome Portal). b) Scanner microphotography of Simonsiella sp. (Image: J. Pangborn)

In some cases, there are bacteria that do not have a definite shape or this may vary throughout the cell cycle. In this case, we speak of technically known as Pleomorphic bacteria. Corynebacterium sp. and Rhizobium sp. are good examples of this type of morphology.


The form or morphology that presents the different bacteria is determined by its genome. This fact, and the great diversity of morphologies in different environments, suggest that this feature has an adaptive value and that have been produced by selective forces.

In general, the morphological features are attributed to environmental events as for example the limitation of nutrients, reproduction, dispersion, evasion of a predator or detection of the guest. In the case of filamentous bacteria, they presented a better buoyancy in liquid media and are more difficult to digest by protists. Helical bacteria move easiest in viscous media, while a spherical bacterium or cocci is ideal for the diffusion of nutrients (because it increases the surface/volume ratio).

So, expect that same morphology may appear by convergence in different lineages (that do not have a common ancestor), i.e. that shape is an adaptation to a given environment. For example, before, bacteria that have prostheca were grouped into a single genre known as Prosthecomicrobium, but thanks to genetic studies, this genus has been divided in three different genres. The surprise came when noted that each one of these genera was more similar to a gender without prostheca that between them, i.e., not were related phylogenetically. Simply these species have developed the same system of adaptation to the environment.

However, there are also remember that there are morphological characteristics that are inherited from a common ancestor and are preserved because it is useful for the life of the microbe.


As well as increase the knowledge in the microbial world and genetic techniques, we will discover more facts about these tiny organisms.


  • Brock, microbe Biology. Madigan. Ed. Pearson.
  • Microbiology Introduction. Tortora. Ed. Panamericana. (Free access in spanish here)
  • David, T. Kysela. Diversity takes shape: understanding the mechanistic and adaptative basis of bacterial morphology. PLOS Biology. (Free access)
  • Kevin D. Young. The Selective Value of Bacterial Shape. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. (Free access)
  • Kevin D. Young. Bacterial morphology: why have different shapes? Current Opinion in Microbiology. (Free access)
  • Cover Photo: Escuela y Ciencia.



Basic Microbiology (I): invisible world

The 7 September 1674 Anton van Leeuwenhoek said having watched a few tiny animals in a drop of water. What you referred to the concept of tiny animals? In many of our articles we refer to these organisms. Read on to start your journey into the fascinating world of the invisible. 


“They are imperceptible to the naked eye and abounded in such a way that the water seemed to be alive.” From a simple sample of water, Anton Leeuwenhoek concluded that there were tiny living organisms that were impossible to observe with the naked eye. With the help of a rudimentary microscope, he described the first microorganisms.

A world microscopic drawings of Leeuwenhoek over what he described as tiny animals. (Photo: Miguel Vicente, Madrimasd).

The concept of microorganism refers to a heterogeneous group of organisms that can only be displayed with the help of microscopes, since they have sizes lower than the limits of vision of humans (approximately 0.1 mm). They may be prokaryotic (bacteria), eukaryotic (Protozoa, algae, fungi…) and even entities acellular, as it would be the case of the virus. These organisms are measured by submultiples of the metro, more specifically in micrometers (μm, thousandth of a millimeter) and nanometers (nm, millionth of a millimeter).

The submultiples of the metro table (photo: Science Park).

This small size has its advantages: a high surface to volume ratio. This factor has an important biological effect. For example, the smaller cells tend to grow and multiply more quickly due to a rapid exchange of nutrients. Be reduced in size on the other hand, favors a more rapid evolution already that to multiply more quickly significantly increases the frequency of mutations (remember that mutations are the raw material of evolution). In addition, microorganisms more quickly adapt to the environment.

Let’s look at the different sizes that can be found in this large group of microorganisms. In the image below we can see a simple comparison between the various organisms and cells.

Different microorganisms and cells size scale. (Photo: Isabel Etayo).


This group of prokaryotes is characterized by a size that includes more than 700 μm and 0.2 μm. It should be noted that this group presents varied morphologies and therefore some are measured by diameter (spherical bacteria or coconuts) or by thickness and height (elongated bacteria or bacilli). A prokaryote’s average size is between 0.5 μm and 4 μm. The bacterium Escherichia coli is usually of approximately of 2 μm x 1 μm. In a small space, as the diameter of the point that there is at the end of this sentence would fit some 500 E. coli.

Size comparative diagram of different bacteria. (Photo: University of Granada).

The largest known bacterium is Thiomargarita namibiensis. This prokaryote was found in Namibia in 1999. Its size is 750 μm in diameter (0.75 mm), so they are almost visible to the naked eye. These microorganisms usually present as large as some nutrient storage mechanism, in this case sulfur. Another great example is that of Epulopiscium fishelsoni with a size of 600 μm. On the right side of the picture below we can see the comparison of the latter with  E. coli.

A. Picture of Thiomargarita namibiensis, of about 750 micrometers. B. comparison between Epulopiscium fishelsoni and E. coli. (Photos: Science Policy)

Having a microscopic size isn’t all advantages, it is obvious that there should be a lower limit. Sizes less than 0.15 μm in a bacterium would be almost impossible. Mycoplasma pneumoniae is the smallest bacterium, with a diameter of 0.2 μm. This is a bacterium without a cell wall which can be purchased in many different ways. Following the example of the final point, at 1 mm diameter would fit 5000 bacteria size of Mycoplasma pneumoniae.


In general, viruses have sizes much smaller than bacteria. They usually have sizes ranging from 20 to 300 nm. So the virus can be up to one hundred times smaller than a bacterium like E. coli. 

Comparison of sizes of different virus and E. coli. (Photo: diversidad microbiana)

The largest known virus is the Mimivirus. This presents 600 nm in diameter (larger than Mycoplasma pneumoniae). In the image below, you can see the comparison between the size of these giant virus and Rickettsia conorii (bacteria that causes human Boutonneuse Fever).

Comparison between Mimivirus and Rickettsia conorii. (Photo: byte Size Biology)

The Polio virus is one of the smallest viruses that are known, with a size of 20 nm (0.02 μm). If we could observe how many polio virus would fit on the point of the end of the sentence, would find some 50000 polio viral particles.


In Protozoa, the size remains varied. The average size is usually 250 μm in length. Even so, small protozoa as bacteria can be found (between 2 and 3 μm, like for example the Leishmania or Babesia) or large protozoa visible to the naked eye (from 16 mm in the case of Porospora gigantea). In the case of Leishmania can be seen as almost a hundred of bodies (thin arrow) can live inside a macrophage of a 30 μm (coarse black arrow).

Leishmania inside a macrophage (black arrow). The bar represents about 20 micrometers. (Photo: Thatawan Pothirat).

Microscopic fungi, such as yeasts, include sizes 6-20 μm. The best-known yeast is Saccharomyces cerevisiae with a size of oscillates between the 6 and 12 μm depending on its stage of ripeness. In the image below we can see an example very clear.

Size of the cells of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. (Photo: Easy notes).


“No view has reached my eye more pleasurable than this of so many living creatures within a small drop of water”. Anton Leeuwenhoek, in 1974, discovered an incredible invisible world.


  • Brock, Biología de los microorganismos. Editorial Pearson.
  • Ignacio López-Goñi. Virus y Pandemias. Editorial Naukas.
  • Cover Photo: Escuela y Ciencia.