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.).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 a 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.
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).
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.
DETERMINED BY THE GENOME
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.