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Baron S, editor. Medical Microbiology. 4th edition. Galveston (TX): University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; 1996.

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Medical Microbiology. 4th edition.

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Chapter 2Structure

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General Concepts

Gross Morphology

Bacteria have characteristic shapes (cocci, rods, spirals, etc.) and often occur in characteristic aggregates (pairs, chains, tetrads, clusters, etc.). These traits are usually typical for a genus and are diagnostically useful.

Cell Structure

Prokaryotes have a nucleoid (nuclear body) rather than an enveloped nucleus and lack membrane-bound cytoplasmic organelles. The plasma membrane in prokaryotes performs many of the functions carried out by membranous organelles in eukaryotes. Multiplication is by binary fission.

Surface Structures

Flagella: The flagella of motile bacteria differ in structure from eukaryotic flagella. A basal body anchored in the plasma membrane and cell wall gives rise to a cylindrical protein filament. The flagellum moves by whirling about its long axis. The number and arrangement of flagella on the cell are diagnostically useful.

Pili (Fimbriae): Pili are slender, hairlike, proteinaceous appendages on the surface of many (particularly Gram-negative) bacteria. They are important in adhesion to host surfaces.

Capsules: Some bacteria form a thick outer capsule of high-molecular-weight, viscous polysaccharide gel; others have more amorphous slime layers. Capsules confer resistance to phagocytosis.

Important Chemical Components of Surface Structures

Cell Wall Peptidoglycans: Both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria possess cell wall peptidoglycans, which confer the characteristic cell shape and provide the cell with mechanical protection. Peptidoglycans are unique to prokaryotic organisms and consist of a glycan backbone of muramic acid and glucosamine (both N-acetylated), and peptide chains highly cross-linked with bridges in Gram-positive bacteria (e.g., Staphylococcus aureus) or partially cross-linked in Gram-negative bacteria (e.g., Escherichia coli). The cross-linking transpeptidase enzymes are some of the targets for b-lactam antibiotics.

Teichoic Acids: Teichoic acids are polyol phosphate polymers bearing a strong negative charge. They are covalently linked to the peptidoglycan in some Gram-positive bacteria. They are strongly antigenic, but are generally absent in Gram-negative bacteria.

Lipoteichoic Acids: Lipoteichoic acids as membrane teichoic acids are polymers of amphiphitic glycophosphates with the lipophilic glycolipid and anchored in the cytoplasmic membrane. They are antigenic, cytotoxic and adhesins (e.g., Streptococcus pyogenes).

Lipopolysaccharides: One of the major components of the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria is lipopolysaccharide (endotoxin), a complex molecule consisting of a lipid A anchor, a polysaccharide core, and chains of carbohydrates. Sugars in the polysaccharide chains confer serologic specificity.

Wall-Less Forms: Two groups of bacteria devoid of cell wall peptidoglycans are the Mycoplasma species, which possess a surface membrane structure, and the L-forms that arise from either Gram-positive or Gram-negative bacterial cells that have lost their ability to produce the peptidoglycan structures.

Cytoplasmic Structures

Plasma Membrane: The bacterial plasma membrane is composed primarily of protein and phospholipid (about 3:1). It performs many functions, including transport, biosynthesis, and energy transduction.

Organelles: The bacterial cytoplasm is densely packed with 70S ribosomes. Other granules represent metabolic reserves (e.g., poly-β-hydroxybutyrate, polysaccharide, polymetaphosphate, and metachromatic granules).

Endospores: Bacillus and Clostridium species can produce endospores: heat-resistant, dehydrated resting cells that are formed intracellularly and contain a genome and all essential metabolic machinery. The endospore is encased in a complex protective spore coat.


All bacteria, both pathogenic and saprophytic, are unicellular organisms that reproduce by binary fission. Most bacteria are capable of independent metabolic existence and growth, but species of Chlamydia and Rickettsia are obligately intracellular organisms. Bacterial cells are extremely small and are most conveniently measured in microns (10-6 m). They range in size from large cells such as Bacillus anthracis (1.0 to 1.3 µm X 3 to 10 µm) to very small cells such as Pasteurella tularensis (0.2 X 0.2 to 0.7 µm) Mycoplasmas (atypical pneumonia group) are even smaller, measuring 0.1 to 0.2 µm in diameter. Bacteria therefore have a surface-to-volume ratio that is very high: about 100,000.

Bacteria have characteristic shapes. The common microscopic morphologies are cocci (round or ellipsoidal cells, such as Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus, respectively); rods, such as Bacillus and Clostridium species; long, filamentous branched cells, such as Actinomyces species; and comma-shaped and spiral cells, such as Vibrio cholerae and Treponema pallidum, respectively. The arrangement of cells is also typical of various species or groups of bacteria (Fig. 2-1). Some rods or cocci characteristically grow in chains; some, such as Staphylococcus aureus, form grapelike clusters of spherical cells; some round cocci form cubic packets. Bacterial cells of other species grow separately. The microscopic appearance is therefore valuable in classification and diagnosis. The higher resolving power of the electron microscope not only magnifies the typical shape of a bacterial cell but also clearly resolves its prokaryotic organization (Fig. 2-2).

Figure 2-1. Typical shapes and arrangements of bacterial cells.

Figure 2-1

Typical shapes and arrangements of bacterial cells.

Figure 2-2. Electron micrograph of a thin section of Neisseria gonorrhoeae showing the organizational features of prokaryotic cells.

Figure 2-2

Electron micrograph of a thin section of Neisseria gonorrhoeae showing the organizational features of prokaryotic cells. Note the electron-transparent nuclear region (n) packed with DNA fibrils, (more...)

The Nucleoid

Prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells were initially distinguished on the basis of structure: the prokaryotic nucleoidthe equivalent of the eukaryotic nucleusis structurally simpler than the true eukaryotic nucleus, which has a complex mitotic apparatus and surrounding nuclear membrane. As the electron micrograph in Fig. 2-2 shows, the bacterial nucleoid, which contains the DNA fibrils, lacks a limiting membrane. Under the light microscope, the nucleoid of the bacterial cell can be visualized with the aid of Feulgen staining, which stains DNA. Gentle lysis can be used to isolate the nucleoid of most bacterial cells. The DNA is then seen to be a single, continuous, "giant" circular molecule with a molecular weight of approximately 3 X 109 (see Ch. 5). The unfolded nuclear DNA would be about 1 mm long (compared with an average length of 1 to 2 µm for bacterial cells). The bacterial nucleoid, then, is a structure containing a single chromosome. The number of copies of this chromosome in a cell depends on the stage of the cell cycle (chromosome replication, cell enlargement, chromosome segregation, etc). Although the mechanism of segregation of the two sister chromosomes following replication is not fully understood, all of the models proposed require that the chromosome be permanently attached to the cell membrane throughout the various stages of the cell cycle.

Bacterial chromatin does not contain basic histone proteins, but low-molecular-weight polyamines and magnesium ions may fulfill a function similar to that of eukaryotic histones. Despite the differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic DNA, prokaryotic DNA from cells infected with bacteriophage 𝛄, when visualized by electron microscopy, has a beaded, condensed appearance not unlike that of eukaryotic chromatin.

Surface Appendages

Two types of surface appendage can be recognized on certain bacterial species: the flagella, which are organs of locomotion, and pili (Latin hairs), which are also known as fimbriae (Latin fringes). Flagella occur on both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, and their presence can be useful in identification. For example, they are found on many species of bacilli but rarely on cocci. In contrast, pili occur almost exclusively on Gram-negative bacteria and are found on only a few Gram-positive organisms (e.g., Corynebacterium renale).

Some bacteria have both flagella and pili. The electron micrograph in Fig. 2-3 shows the characteristic wavy appearance of flagella and two types of pili on the surface of Escherichia coli.

Figure 2-3. (A) Electron micrograph of negatively stained E.

Figure 2-3

(A) Electron micrograph of negatively stained E. coli showing wavy flagella and numerous short, thinner, and more rigid hairlike structures, the pili. (B) The long sex pilus can be (more...)


Structurally, bacterial flagella are long (3 to 12 µm), filamentous surface appendages about 12 to 30 nm in diameter. The protein subunits of a flagellum are assembled to form a cylindrical structure with a hollow core. A flagellum consists of three parts: (1) the long filament, which lies external to the cell surface; (2) the hook structure at the end of the filament; and (3) the basal body, to which the hook is anchored and which imparts motion to the flagellum. The basal body traverses the outer wall and membrane structures. It consists of a rod and one or two pairs of discs. The thrust that propels the bacterial cell is provided by counterclockwise rotation of the basal body, which causes the helically twisted filament to whirl. The movement of the basal body is driven by a proton motive force rather than by ATP directly. The ability of bacteria to swim by means of the propeller-like action of the flagella provides them with the mechanical means to perform chemotaxis (movement in response to attractant and repellent substances in the environment). Response to chemical stimuli involves a sophisticated sensory system of receptors that are located in the cell surface and/or periplasm and that transmit information to methyl-accepting chemotaxis proteins that control the flagellar motor. Genetic studies have revealed the existence of mutants with altered biochemical pathways for flagellar motility and chemotaxis.

Chemically, flagella are constructed of a class of proteins called flagellins. The hook and basal-body structures consist of numerous proteins. Mutations affecting any of these gene products may result in loss or impairment of motility. Flagellins are immunogenic and constitute a group of protein antigens called the H antigens, which are characteristic of a given species, strain, or variant of an organism. The species specificity of the flagellins reflects differences in the primary structures of the proteins. Antigenic changes of the flagella known as the phase variation of H1 and H2 occurs in Salmonella typhimurium (see Ch. 21 and Ref. Seifert and So).

The number and distribution of flagella on the bacterial surface are characteristic for a given species and hence are useful in identifying and classifying bacteria. Figure 2-4 illustrates typical arrangements of flagella on or around the bacterial surface. For example, V. cholerae has a single flagellum at one pole of the cell (i.e., it is monotrichous), whereas Proteus vulgaris and E. coli have many flagella distributed over the entire cell surface (i.e., they are peritrichous). The flagella of a peritrichous bacterium must aggregate as a posterior bundle to propel the cell in a forward direction.

Figure 2-4. Typical arrangements of bacterial flagella.

Figure 2-4

Typical arrangements of bacterial flagella.

Flagella can be sheared from the cell surface without affecting the viability of the cell. The cell then becomes temporarily nonmotile. In time it synthesizes new flagella and regains motility. The protein synthesis inhibitor chloramphenicol, however, blocks regeneration of flagella.


The terms pili and fimbriae are usually used interchangeably to describe the thin, hairlike appendages on the surface of many Gram-negative bacteria and proteins of pili are referred to as pilins. Pili are more rigid in appearance than flagella (Fig. 2-3). In some organisms, such as Shigella species and E. coli, pili are distributed profusely over the cell surface, with as many as 200 per cell. As is easily recognized in strains of E. coli, pili can come in two types: short, abundant common pili, and a small number (one to six) of very long pili known as sex pili. Sex pili can be distinguished by their ability to bind male-specific bacteriophages (the sex pilus acts as a specific receptor for these bacteriophages) (Fig. 2-3B). The sex pili attach male to female bacteria during conjugation.

Pili in many enteric bacteria confer adhesive properties on the bacterial cells, enabling them to adhere to various epithelial surfaces, to red blood cells (causing hemagglutination), and to surfaces of yeast and fungal cells. These adhesive properties of piliated cells play an important role in bacterial colonization of epithelial surfaces and are therefore referred to as colonization factors. The common pili found on E. coli exhibit a sugar specificity analogous to that of phytohemagglutinins and lectins, in that adhesion and hemagglutinating capacities of the organism are inhibited specifically by mannose. Organisms possessing this type of hemagglutination are called mannose-sensitive organisms. Other piliated organisms, such as gonococci, are adhesive and hemagglutinating, but are insensitive to the inhibitory effects of mannose. Extensive antigenic variations in pilins of gonococci are well known (see Ref. Seifert and So).

Surface Layers

The surface layers of the bacterial cell have been identified by various techniques: light microscopy and staining; electron microscopy of thin-sectioned, freeze-fractured, and negatively stained cells; and isolation and biochemical characterization of individual morphologic components of the cell. The principal surface layers are capsules and loose slime, the cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria and the complex cell envelope of Gram-negative bacteria, plasma (cytoplasmic) membranes, and mesosomal membrane vesicles, which arise from invaginations of the plasma membrane. In bacteria, the cell wall forms a rigid structure of uniform thickness around the cell and is responsible for the characteristic shape of the cell (rod, coccus, or spiral). Inside the cell wall (or rigid peptidoglycan layer) is the plasma (cytoplasmic) membrane; this is usually closely apposed to the wall layer. The topographic relationships of the cell wall and envelope layers to the plasma membrane are indicated in the thin section of a Gram-positive organism (Micrococcus lysodeikticus) in Figure 2-5A and in the freeze-fractured cell of a Gram-negative organism (Bacteroides melaninogenicus) in Figure 2-5B. The latter shows the typical fracture planes seen in most Gram-negative bacteria, which are weak cleavage planes through the outer membrane of the envelope and extensive fracture planes through the bilayer region of the underlying plasma membrane.

Figure 2-5. (A) Electron micrograph of a thin section of the Gram-positive M.

Figure 2-5

(A) Electron micrograph of a thin section of the Gram-positive M. lysodeikticus showing the thick peptidoglycan cell wall (cw), underlying cytoplasmic (plasma) membrane (cm), mesosome (m), and (more...)

Capsules and Loose Slime

Some bacteria form capsules, which constitute the outermost layer of the bacterial cell and surround it with a relatively thick layer of viscous gel. Capsules may be up to 10 µm thick. Some organisms lack a well-defined capsule but have loose, amorphous slime layers external to the cell wall or cell envelope. The α hemolytic Streptococcus mutans, the primary organism found in dental plaque is able to synthesis a large extracellular mucoid glucans from sucrose. Not all bacterial species produce capsules; however, the capsules of encapsulated pathogens are often important determinants of virulence. Encapsulated species are found among both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. In both groups, most capsules are composed of highmolecular-weight viscous polysaccharides that are retained as a thick gel outside the cell wall or envelope. The capsule of Bacillus anthracis (the causal agent of anthrax) is unusual in that it is composed of a γ-glutamyl polypeptide. Table 2-1 presents the various capsular substances formed by a selection of Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. A plasma membrane stage is involved in the biosynthesis and assembly of the capsular substances, which are extruded or secreted through the outer wall or envelope structures. Mutational loss of enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of the capsular polysaccharides can result in the smooth-to-rough variation seen in the pneumococci.

Table 2-1. Nature of Capsular Substances Formed by Various Bacteria.

Table 2-1

Nature of Capsular Substances Formed by Various Bacteria.

The capsule is not essential for viability. Viability is not affected when capsular polysaccharides are removed enzymatically from the cell surface. The exact functions of capsules are not fully understood, but they do confer resistance to phagocytosis and hence provide the bacterial cell with protection against host defenses to invasion.

Cell Wall and Gram-Negative Cell Envelope

The Gram stain broadly differentiates bacteria into Gram-positive and Gram-negative groups; a few organisms are consistently Gram-variable. Gram-positive and Gram-negative organisms differ drastically in the organization of the structures outside the plasma membrane but below the capsule (Fig. 2-6): in Gram-negative organisms these structures constitute the cell envelope, whereas in Gram-positive organisms they are called a cell wall.

Figure 2-6. Comparison of the thick cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria with the comparatively thin cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria.

Figure 2-6

Comparison of the thick cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria with the comparatively thin cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria. Note the complexity of the Gram-negative cell envelope (outer (more...)

Most Gram-positive bacteria have a relatively thick (about 20 to 80 nm), continuous cell wall (often called the sacculus), which is composed largely of peptidoglycan (also known as mucopeptide or murein). In thick cell walls, other cell wall polymers (such as the teichoic acids, polysaccharides, and peptidoglycolipids) are covalently attached to the peptidoglycan. In contrast, the peptidoglycan layer in Gram-negative bacteria is thin (about 5 to 10 nm thick); in E. coli, the peptidoglycan is probably only a monolayer thick. Outside the peptidoglycan layer in the Gram-negative envelope is an outer membrane structure (about 7.5 to 10 nm thick). In most Gram-negative bacteria, this membrane structure is anchored noncovalently to lipoprotein molecules (Braun's lipoprotein), which, in turn, are covalently linked to the peptidoglycan. The lipopolysaccharides of the Gram-negative cell envelope form part of the outer leaflet of the outer membrane structure.

The organization and overall dimensions of the outer membrane of the Gram-negative cell envelope are similar to those of the plasma membrane (about 7.5 nm thick). Moreover, in Gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli, the outer and inner membranes adhere to each other at several hundred sites (Bayer patches); these sites can break up the continuity of the peptidoglycan layer. Table 2-2 summarizes the major classes of chemical constituents in the walls and envelopes of Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.

Table 2-2. Major Classes of Chemical Components in Bacterial Walls and Envelopes.

Table 2-2

Major Classes of Chemical Components in Bacterial Walls and Envelopes.

The basic differences in surface structures of Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria explain the results of Gram staining. Both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria take up the same amounts of crystal violet (CV) and iodine (I). The CV-I complex, however, is trapped inside the Gram-positive cell by the dehydration and reduced porosity of the thick cell wall as a result of the differential washing step with 95 percent ethanol or other solvent mixture. In contrast, the thin peptidoglycan layer and probable discontinuities at the membrane adhesion sites do not impede solvent extraction of the CV-I complex from the Gram-negative cell. The above mechanism of the Gram stain based on the structural differences between the two groups has been confirmed by sophisticated methods of electron microscopy (see Ref. Bereridge and Daries). The sequence of steps in the Gram stain differentiation is illustrated diagrammatically in Figure 2-7. Moreover, mechanical disruption of the cell wall of Gram-positive organisms or its enzymatic removal with lysozyme results in complete extraction of the CV-I complex and conversion to a Gram-negative reaction. Therefore, autolytic wall-degrading enzymes that cause cell wall breakage may account for Gram-negative or variable reactions in cultures of Gram-positive organisms (such as Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, and some Bacillus spp.).

Figure 2-7. General sequence of steps in the Gram stain procedure and the resultant staining of Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.

Figure 2-7

General sequence of steps in the Gram stain procedure and the resultant staining of Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.


Unique features of almost all prokaryotic cells (except for Halobacterium halobium and mycoplasmas) are cell wall peptidoglycan and the specific enzymes involved in its biosynthesis. These enzymes are target sites for inhibition of peptidoglycan synthesis by specific antibiotics. The primary chemical structures of peptidoglycans of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria have been established; they consist of a glycan backbone of repeating groups of β1, 4-linked disaccharides of β1,4-N-acetylmuramyl-N-acetylglucosamine. Tetrapeptides of L-alanine-D-isoglutamic acid-L-lysine (or diaminopimelic acid)-n-alanine are linked through the carboxyl group by amide linkage of muramic acid residues of the glycan chains; the D-alanine residues are directly cross-linked to the 𝛆-amino group of lysine or diaminopimelic acid on a neighboring tetrapeptide, or they are linked by a peptide bridge. In S. aureus peptidoglycan, a glycine pentapeptide bridge links the two adjacent peptide structures. The extent of direct or peptide-bridge cross-linking varies from one peptidoglycan to another. The staphylococcal peptidoglycan is highly cross-linked, whereas that of E. coli is much less so, and has a more open peptidoglycan mesh. The diamino acid providing the 𝛆-amino group for cross-linking is lysine or diaminopimelic acid, the latter being uniformly present in Gram-negative peptidoglycans. The structure of the peptidoglycan is illustrated in Figure 2-8. A peptidoglycan with a chemical structure substantially different from that of all eubacteria has been discovered in certain archaebacteria. Instead of muramic acid, this peptidoglycan contains talosaminuronic acid and lacks the D-amino acids found in the eubacterial peptidoglycans. Interestingly, organisms containing this wall polymer (referred to as pseudomurein) are insensitive to penicillin, an inhibitor of the transpeptidases involved in peptidoglycan biosynthesis in eubacteria.

Figure 2-8. Diagrammatic representation of peptidoglycan structures with adjacent glycan strands cross-linked directly from the carboxyterminal D-alanine to the 𝛆-amino group of an adjacent tetrapeptide or through a peptide cross bridge, N-acetylmuramic acid, N-acetylglucosamine.

Figure 2-8

Diagrammatic representation of peptidoglycan structures with adjacent glycan strands cross-linked directly from the carboxyterminal D-alanine to the 𝛆-amino group of an (more...)

The ß-1,4 glycosidic bond between N-acetylmuramic acid and N-acetylglucosamine is specifically cleaved by the bacteriolytic enzyme lysozyme. Widely distributed in nature, this enzyme is present in human tissues and secretions and can cause complete digestion of the peptidoglycan walls of sensitive organisms. When lysozyme is allowed to digest the cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria suspended in an osmotic stabilizer (such as sucrose), protoplasts are formed. These protoplasts are able to survive and continue to grow on suitable media in the wall-less state. Gram-negative bacteria treated similarly produce spheroplasts, which retain much of the outer membrane structure. The dependence of bacterial shape on the peptidoglycan is shown by the transformation of rod-shaped bacteria to spherical protoplasts (spheroplasts) after enzymatic breakdown of the peptidoglycan. The mechanical protection afforded by the wall peptidoglycan layer is evident in the osmotic fragility of both protoplasts and spheroplasts. There are two groups of bacteria that lack the protective cell wall peptidoglycan structure, the Mycoplasma species, one of which causes atypical pneumonia and some genitourinary tract infections and the L-forms, which originate from Gram-positive or Gram-negative bacteria and are so designated because of their discovery and description at the Lister Institute, London. The mycoplasmas and L-forms are all Gram-negative and insensitive to penicillin and are bounded by a surface membrane structure. L-forms arising "spontaneously" in cultures or isolated from infections are structurally related to protoplasts and spheroplasts; all three forms (protoplasts, spheroplasts, and L-forms) revert infrequently and only under special conditions.

Teichoic Acids

Wall teichoic acids are found only in certain Gram-positive bacteria (such as staphylococci, streptococci, lactobacilli, and Bacillus spp.); so far, they have not been found in gram- negative organisms. Teichoic acids are polyol phosphate polymers, with either ribitol or glycerol linked by phosphodiester bonds; their structures are illustrated in Figure 2-9. Substituent groups on the polyol chains can include D-alanine (ester linked), N-acetylglucosamine, N-acetylgalactosamine, and glucose; the substituent is characteristic for the teichoic acid from a particular bacterial species and can act as a specific antigenic determinant. Teichoic acids are covalently linked to the peptidoglycan. These highly negatively charged polymers of the bacterial wall can serve as a cation-sequestering mechanism.

Figure 2-9. Structures of cell wall teichoic acids.

Figure 2-9

Structures of cell wall teichoic acids. (A) Ribitol teichoic acid with repeating units of 1,5-phosphodiester linkages of D-ribitol and D-alanyl ester on position 2 and glycosyl substituents (more...)

Accessory Wall Polymers

In addition to the principal cell wall polymers, the walls of certain Gram-positive bacteria possess polysaccharide molecules linked to the peptidoglycan. For example, the C polysaccharide of streptococci confers group specificity. Acidic polysaccharides attached to the peptidoglycan are called teichuronic acids. Mycobacteria have peptidoglycolipids, glycolipids, and waxes associated with the cell wall.


A characteristic feature of Gram-negative bacteria is possession of various types of complex macromolecular lipopolysaccharide (LPS). So far, only one Gram-positive organism, Listeria monocytogenes, has been found to contain an authentic LPS. The LPS of this bacterium and those of all Gram-negative species are also called endotoxins, thereby distinguishing these cell-bound, heat-stable toxins from heat-labile, protein exotoxins secreted into culture media. Endotoxins possess an array of powerful biologic activities and play an important role in the pathogenesis of many Gram-negative bacterial infections. In addition to causing endotoxic shock, LPS is pyrogenic, can activate macrophages and complement, is mitogenic for B lymphocytes, induces interferon production, causes tissue necrosis and tumor regression, and has adjuvant properties. The endotoxic properties of LPS reside largely in the lipid A components. Usually, the LPS molecules have three regions: the lipid A structure required for insertion in the outer leaflet of the outer membrane bilayer; a covalently attached core composed of 2-keto-3deoxyoctonic acid (KDO), heptose, ethanolamine, N-acetylglucosamine, glucose, and galactose; and polysaccharide chains linked to the core. The polysaccharide chains constitute the O-antigens of the Gram-negative bacteria, and the individual monosaccharide constituents confer serologic specificity on these components. Figure 2-10 depicts the structure of LPS. Although it has been known that lipid A is composed of β1,6-linked D-glucosamine disaccharide substituted with phosphomonester groups at positions 4' and 1, uncertainties have existed about the attachment positions of the six fatty acid acyl and KDO groups on the disaccharide. The demonstration of the structure of lipid A of LPS of a heptoseless mutant of Salmonella typhimurium has established that amide-linked hydroxymyristoyl and lauroxymyristoyl groups are attached to the nitrogen of the 2- and 2'-carbons, respectively, and that hydroxymyristoyl and myristoxymyristoyl groups are attached to the oxygen of the 3- and 3'-carbons of the disaccharide, respectively. Therefore, only position 6' is left for attachment of KDO units.

Figure 2-10. The three major, covalently linked regions that form the typical LPS.

Figure 2-10

The three major, covalently linked regions that form the typical LPS.

LPS and phospholipids help confer asymmetry to the outer membrane of the Gram-negative bacteria, with the hydrophilic polysaccharide chains outermost. Each LPS is held in the outer membrane by relatively weak cohesive forces (ionic and hydrophobic interactions) and can be dissociated from the cell surface with surface-active agents.

As in peptidoglycan biosynthesis, LPS molecules are assembled at the plasma or inner membrane. These newly formed molecules are initially inserted into the outer-inner membrane adhesion sites.

Outer Membrane of Gram-Negative Bacteria

In thin sections, the outer membranes of Gram-negative bacteria appear broadly similar to the plasma or inner membranes; however, they differ from the inner membranes and walls of Gram-positive bacteria in numerous respects. The lipid A of LPS is inserted with phospholipids to create the outer leaflet of the bilayer structure; the lipid portion of the lipoprotein and phospholipid form the inner leaflet of the outer membrane bilayer of most Gram-negative bacteria (Fig. 2-6).

In addition to these components, the outer membrane possesses several major outer membrane proteins; the most abundant is called porin. The assembled subunits of porin form a channel that limits the passage of hydrophilic molecules across the outer membrane barrier to those having molecular weights that are usually less than 600 to 700. Evidence also suggests that hydrophobic pathways exist across the outer membrane and are partly responsible for the differential penetration and effectiveness of certain b-lactam antibiotics (ampicillin, cephalosporins) that are active against various Gram-negative bacteria. Although the outer membranes act as a permeability barrier or molecular sieve, they do not appear to possess energy-transducing systems to drive active transport. Several outer membrane proteins, however, are involved in the specific uptake of metabolites (maltose, vitamin B12, nucleosides) and iron from the medium. Thus, outer membranes of the Gram-negative bacteria provide a selective barrier to external molecules and thereby prevent the loss of metabolite-binding proteins and hydrolytic enzymes (nucleases, alkaline phosphatase) found in the periplasmic space. The periplasmic space is the region between the outer surface of the inner (plasma) membrane and the inner surface of the outer membrane (Figure 2-6). Thus, Gram-negative bacteria have a cellular compartment that has no equivalent in Gram-positive organisms. In addition to the hydrolytic enzymes, the periplasmic space holds binding proteins (proteins that specifically bind sugars, amino acids, and inorganic ions) involved in membrane transport and chemotactic receptor activities. Moreover, plasmid-encoded b-lactamases and aminoglycoside-modifying enzymes (phosphorylation or adenylation) in the periplasmic space produce antibiotic resistance by degrading or modifying an antibiotic in transit to its target sites on the membrane (penicillin-binding proteins) or on the ribosomes (aminoglycosides). These periplasmic proteins can be released by subjecting the cells to osmotic shock and after treatment with the chelating agent ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid.

Intracellular Components

Plasma (Cytoplasmic) Membranes

Bacterial plasma membranes, the functional equivalents of eukaryotic plasma membranes, are referred to variously as cytoplasmic, protoplast, or (in Gram-negative organisms) inner membranes. Similar in overall dimensions and appearance in thin sections to biomembranes from eukaryotic cells, they are composed primarily of proteins and lipids (principally phospholipids). Protein-to-lipid ratios of bacterial plasma membranes are approximately 3: 1, close to those for mitochondrial membranes. Unlike eukaryotic cell membranes, the bacterial membrane (except for Mycoplasma species and certain methylotrophic bacteria) has no sterols, and bacteria lack the enzymes required for sterol biosynthesis.

Although their composition is similar to that of inner membranes of Gram-negative species, cytoplasmic membranes from Gram-positive bacteria possess a class of macromolecules not present in the Gram-negative membranes. Many Gram-positive bacterial membranes contain membrane-bound lipoteichoic acid, and species lacking this component (such as Micrococcus and Sarcina spp.) contain an analogous membrane-bound succinylated lipomannan. Lipoteichoic acids are structurally similar to the cell wall glycerol teichoic acids in that they have basal polyglycerol phosphodiester 1-3 linked chains (Fig. 2-9). These chains terminate with the phosphomonoester end of the polymer, which is linked covalently to either a glycolipid or a phosphatidyl glycolipid moiety. Thus, a hydrophobic tail is provided for anchoring in the membrane lipid layers (Fig. 2-6A). As in the cell wall glycerol teichoic acid, the lipoteichoic acids can have glycosidic and D-alanyl ester substituents on the C-2 position of the glycerol.

Both membrane-bound lipoteichoic acid and membrane-bound succinylated lipomannan can be detected as antigens on the cell surface, and the glycerol-phosphate and succinylated mannan chains appear to extend through the cell wall structure (Fig. 2-6). This class of polymer has not yet been found in the cytoplasmic membranes of Gram-negative organisms. In both instances, the lipoteichoic acids and the lipomannans are negatively charged components and can sequester positively charged substances. They have been implicated in adhesion to host cells, but their functions remain to be elucidated.

Multiple functions are performed by the plasma membranes of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. Plasma membranes are the site of active transport, respiratory chain components, energy-transducing systems, the H+-ATPase of the proton pump (see Chapter 4), and membrane stages in the biosynthesis of phospholipids, peptidoglycan, LPS, and capsular polysaccharides. In essence, the bacterial cytoplasmic membrane is a multifunction structure that combines the mitochondrial transport and biosynthetic functions that are usually compartmentalized in discrete membranous organelles in eukaryotic cells. The plasma membrane is also the anchoring site for DNA and provides the cell with a mechanism (as yet unknown) for separation of sister chromosomes.


Thin sections of Gram-positive bacteria reveal the presence of vesicular or tubular-vesicular membrane structures called mesosomes, which are apparently formed by an invagination of the plasma membrane. These structures are much more prominent in Gram-positive than in Gram-negative organisms. At one time, the mesosomal vesicles were thought to be equivalent to bacterial mitochondria; however, many other membrane functions have also been attributed to the mesosomes. At present, there is no satisfactory evidence to suggest that they have a unique biochemical or physiologic function. Indeed, electron-microscopic studies have suggested that the mesosomes, as usually seen in thin sections, may arise from membrane perturbation and fixation artifacts. No general agreement exists about this theory, however, and some evidence indicates that mesosomes may be related to events in the cell division cycle.

Other Intracellular Components

In addition to the nucleoid and cytoplasm (cytosol), the intracellular compartment of the bacterial cell is densely packed with ribosomes of the 70S type (Fig. 2-2). These ribonucleoprotein particles, which have a diameter of 18 nm, are not arranged on a membranous rough endoplasmic reticulum as they are in eukaryotic cells. Other granular inclusions randomly distributed in the cytoplasm of various species include metabolic reserve particles such as poly-β-hydroxybutyrate (PHB), polysaccharide and glycogen-like granules, and polymetaphosphate or metachromatic granules.

Endospores are highly heat-resistant, dehydrated resting cells formed intracellularly in members of the genera Bacillus and Clostridium. Sporulation, the process of forming endospores, is an unusual property of certain bacteria. The series of biochemical and morphologic changes that occur during sporulation represent true differentiation within the cycle of the bacterial cell. The process, which usually begins in the stationary phase of the vegetative cell cycle, is initiated by depletion of nutrients (usually readily utilizable sources of carbon or nitrogen, or both). The cell then undergoes a highly complex, well-defined sequence of morphologic and biochemical events that ultimately lead to the formation of mature endospores. As many as seven distinct stages have been recognized by morphologic and biochemical studies of sporulating Bacillus species: stage 0, vegetative cells with two chromosomes at the end of exponential growth; stage I, formation of axial chromatin filament and excretion of exoenzymes, including proteases; stage II, forespore septum formation and segregation of nuclear material into two compartments; stage III, spore protoplast formation and elevation of tricarboxylic acid and glyoxylate cycle enzyme levels; stage IV, cortex formation and refractile appearance of spore; stage V, spore coat protein formation; stage VI, spore maturation, modification of cortical peptidoglycan, uptake of dipicolinic acid (a unique endospore product) and calcium, and development of resistance to heat and organic solvents; and stage VII, final maturation and liberation of endospores from mother cells (in some species).

When newly formed, endospores appear as round, highly refractile cells within the vegetative cell wall, or sporangium. Some strains produce autolysins that digest the walls and liberate free endospores. The spore protoplast, or core, contains a complete nucleus, ribosomes, and energy generating components that are enclosed within a modified cytoplasmic membrane. The peptidoglycan spore wall surrounds the spore membrane; on germination, this wall becomes the vegetative cell wall. Surrounding the spore wall is a thick cortex that contains an unusual type of peptidoglycan, which is rapidly released on germination. A spore coat of keratinlike protein encases the spore contained within a membrane (the exosporium). During maturation, the spore protoplast dehydrates and the spore becomes refractile and resistant to heat, radiation, pressure, desiccation, and chemicals; these properties correlate with the cortical peptidoglycan and the presence of large amounts of calcium dipicolinate.

Recent evidence indicated that the spores of Bacillus spharicus were revived which had been preserved in amber for more than 25 million years. Their claims need to be reevaluated. Figure 2-11 illustrates the principal structural features of a typical endospore (Bacillus megaterium) on initiation of the germination process. The thin section of the spore shows the ruptured, thick spore coat and the cortex surrounding the spore protoplast with the germinal cell wall that becomes the vegetative wall on outgrowth.

Figure 2-11. Electron micrograph of a thin section of a Bacillus megaterium spore showing the thick spore coat (SC), germinal groove (G) in the spore coat, outer cortex layer (OCL) and cortex (Cx) germinal cell wall layer (GCW), underlying spore protoplast membrane (PM), and regions where the nucleoid (n) is visible.

Figure 2-11

Electron micrograph of a thin section of a Bacillus megaterium spore showing the thick spore coat (SC), germinal groove (G) in the spore coat, outer cortex layer (OCL) and (more...)


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Copyright © 1996, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Bookshelf ID: NBK8477PMID: 21413343
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