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Bacteria: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to be visible with the naked eye. This includes bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa and algae, collectively known as 'microbes'.

Bacteria are found in every habitat on Earth: soil, rock, oceans and even arctic snow. Some live in or on other organisms including plants and animals including humans. There are approximately 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells in the human body. A lot of these bacterial cells are found lining the digestive system. Some bacteria live in the soil or on dead plant matter where they play an important role in the cycling of nutrients. Some types cause food spoilage and crop damage but others are incredibly useful in the production of fermented foods such as yoghurt and soy sauce. Relatively few bacteria are parasites or pathogens that cause disease in animals and plants.



Most bacteria reproduce by binary fission. In this process the bacterium, which is a single cell, divides into two identical daughter cells. Binary fission begins when the DNA of the bacterium divides into two (replicates). The bacterial cell then elongates and splits into two daughter cells each with identical DNA to the parent cell. Each daughter cell is a clone of the parent cell.

Some bacteria can form endospores. These are dormant structures, which are extremely resistant to hostile physical and chemical conditions such as heat, UV radiation and disinfectants. This makes destroying them very difficult. Many endospore-producing bacteria are nasty pathogens, for example Bacillus anthracis, the cause of anthrax.

Species within the genus Pseudomonas are amongst the most researched bacteria in the scientific community. Bacteria in this genus are widely used as model organisms in microbial research, and include a range of important species in fields such as plant pathogenicity, bioremediation, and environmental microbiology.

Bacteria (/bækˈtɪəriə/ (listen); singular: bacterium) are ubiquitous, mostly free-living organisms often consisting of one biological cell. They constitute a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria were among the first life forms to appear on Earth, and are present in most of its habitats. Bacteria inhabit soil, water, acidic hot springs, radioactive waste, and the deep biosphere of Earth's crust. Bacteria play a vital role in many stages of the nutrient cycle by recycling nutrients and the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere. The nutrient cycle includes the decomposition of dead bodies; bacteria are responsible for the putrefaction stage in this process. In the biological communities surrounding hydrothermal vents and cold seeps, extremophile bacteria provide the nutrients needed to sustain life by converting dissolved compounds, such as hydrogen sulphide and methane, to energy. Bacteria also live in symbiotic and parasitic relationships with plants and animals. Most bacteria have not been characterised and there are many species that cannot be grown in the laboratory. The study of bacteria is known as bacteriology, a branch of microbiology.

Humans and most other animals carry vast numbers (approximately 1013 to 1014) of bacteria.[2] Most are in the gut, and there are many on the skin. Most of the bacteria in and on the body are harmless or rendered so by the protective effects of the immune system, and many are beneficial,[3] particularly the ones in the gut. However, several species of bacteria are pathogenic and cause infectious diseases, including cholera, syphilis, anthrax, leprosy, tuberculosis, tetanus and bubonic plague. The most common fatal bacterial diseases are respiratory infections. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections and are also used in farming, making antibiotic resistance a growing problem. Bacteria are important in sewage treatment and the breakdown of oil spills, the production of cheese and yogurt through fermentation, the recovery of gold, palladium, copper and other metals in the mining sector, as well as in biotechnology, and the manufacture of antibiotics and other chemicals.

Once regarded as plants constituting the class Schizomycetes ("fission fungi"), bacteria are now classified as prokaryotes. Unlike cells of animals and other eukaryotes, bacterial cells do not contain a nucleus and rarely harbour membrane-bound organelles. Although the term bacteria traditionally included all prokaryotes, the scientific classification changed after the discovery in the 1990s that prokaryotes consist of two very different groups of organisms that evolved from an ancient common ancestor. These evolutionary domains are called Bacteria and Archaea.[4]

The word bacteria is the plural of the Neo-Latin bacterium, which is the latinisation of the Ancient Greek βακτήριον (baktḗrion),[5] the diminutive of βακτηρία (baktēría), meaning "staff, cane",[6] because the first ones to be discovered were rod-shaped.[7][8]

How to kill bacteria in your mouth

Bacteria that cause food poisoning

Difference between bacteria and virus

Benefits of probiotics and good bacteria

Bacteria in yogurt and cheese making

Symptoms of bacterial infection in women

Antibiotics for bacterial infection treatment

Bacterial vaginosis home remedies

How to prevent bacterial growth in food

Bacteria that live in extreme environments

Bacterial meningitis causes and prevention

Types of bacteria in the human body

How to culture bacteria in a lab

Bacteria that can survive without oxygen

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics

Bacteria that decompose organic matter

Bacterial diseases in plants and animals

How to test for bacteria in water

Bacteria that produce biogas and biofuel

Bacterial transformation and genetic engineering

Bacteria that fix nitrogen in the soil

Bacterial skin infections and rashes

How to stain bacteria for microscopy

Bacteria that cause acne and pimples

Bacterial endospores structure and function

Bacteria that help digestion and metabolism

Bacterial cell wall synthesis inhibitors

Bacterial conjunctivitis pink eye treatment

How to remove bacteria from contact lenses

Bacteria that cause bad breath and cavities

Bacterial fermentation process and products

Bacterial plasmids types and functions

Bacterial transduction and conjugation

Bacterial biofilms formation and removal

Bacteria that cause strep throat and tonsillitis

Bacterial classification based on shape and gram stain

Bacterial photosynthesis and chemosynthesis

Bacterial flagella structure and movement

Bacteria that cause tuberculosis and leprosy

Bacterial toxins types and effects

Bacteria that cause urinary tract infection UTI

Bacterial quorum sensing and communication

Bacterial capsules structure and function

Bacteria that cause Lyme disease and syphilis

Bacterial ribosomes structure and function

Bacteria that cause diarrhea and dysentery

Bacterial operons regulation of gene expression

Bacterial spores germination and activation

Bacteria that cause salmonella and typhoid fever

Bacterial peptidoglycan synthesis and degradation

Bacteria were also involved in the second great evolutionary divergence, that of the archaea and eukaryotes.[19][20] Here, eukaryotes resulted from the entering of ancient bacteria into endosymbiotic associations with the ancestors of eukaryotic cells, which were themselves possibly related to the Archaea.[21][22] This involved the engulfment by proto-eukaryotic cells of alphaproteobacterial symbionts to form either mitochondria or hydrogenosomes, which are still found in all known Eukarya (sometimes in highly reduced form, e.g. in ancient "amitochondrial" protozoa). Later, some eukaryotes that already contained mitochondria also engulfed cyanobacteria-like organisms, leading to the formation of chloroplasts in algae and plants. This is known as primary endosymbiosis.[23]

Bacteria are ubiquitous, living in every possible habitat on the planet including soil, underwater, deep in Earth's crust and even such extreme environments as acidic hot springs and radioactive waste.[24][25] There are approximately 21030 bacteria on Earth,[26] forming a biomass that is only exceeded by plants.[27] They are abundant in lakes and oceans, in arctic ice, and geothermal springs[28] where they provide the nutrients needed to sustain life by converting dissolved compounds, such as hydrogen sulphide and methane, to energy.[29] They live on and in plants and animals. Most do not cause diseases, are beneficial to their environments, and are essential for life.[3][30] The soil is a rich source of bacteria and a few grams contain around a thousand million of them. They are all essential to soil ecology, breaking down toxic waste and recycling nutrients. They are even found in the atmosphere and one cubic metre of air holds around one hundred million bacterial cells. The oceans and seas harbour around 3 x 1026 bacteria which provide up to 50% of the oxygen humans breathe.[31] Only around 2% of bacterial species have been fully studied.[32]

Shape. Most bacterial species are either spherical, called cocci (singular coccus, from Greek kókkos, grain, seed), or rod-shaped, called bacilli (sing. bacillus, from Latin baculus, stick).[40] Some bacteria, called vibrio, are shaped like slightly curved rods or comma-shaped; others can be spiral-shaped, called spirilla, or tightly coiled, called spirochaetes. A small number of other unusual shapes have been described, such as star-shaped bacteria.[41] This wide variety of shapes is determined by the bacterial cell wall and cytoskeleton and is important because it can influence the ability of bacteria to acquire nutrients, attach to surfaces, swim through liquids and escape predators.[42][43]

Multicellularity. Most bacterial species exist as single cells; others associate in characteristic patterns: Neisseria forms diploids (pairs), streptococci form chains, and staphylococci group together in "bunch of grapes" clusters. Bacteria can also group to form larger multicellular structures, such as the elongated filaments of Actinomycetota species, the aggregates of Myxobacteria species, and the complex hyphae of Streptomyces species.[45] These multicellular structures are often only seen in certain conditions. For example, when starved of amino acids, myxobacteria detect surrounding cells in a process known as quorum sensing, migrate towards each other, and aggregate to form fruiting bodies up to 500 micrometres long and containing approximately 100,000 bacterial cells.[46] In these fruiting bodies, the bacteria perform separate tasks; for example, about one in ten cells migrate to the top of a fruiting body and differentiate into a specialised dormant state called a myxospore, which is more resistant to drying and other adverse environmental conditions.[47]

Biofilms. Bacteria often attach to surfaces and form dense aggregations called biofilms,[48] and larger formations known as microbial mats.[49] These biofilms and mats can range from a few micrometres in thickness to up to half a metre in depth, and may contain multiple species of bacteria, protists and archaea. Bacteria living in biofilms display a complex arrangement of cells and extracellular components, forming secondary structures, such as microcolonies, through which there are networks of channels to enable better diffusion of nutrients.[50][51] In natural environments, such as soil or the surfaces of plants, the majority of bacteria are bound to surfaces in biofilms.[52] Biofilms are also important in medicine, as these structures are often present during chronic bacterial infections or in infections of implanted medical devices, and bacteria protected within biofilms are much harder to kill than individual isolated bacteria.[53]

The bacterial cell is surrounded by a cell membrane, which is made primarily of phospholipids. This membrane encloses the contents of the cell and acts as a barrier to hold nutrients, proteins and other essential components of the cytoplasm within the cell.[54] Unlike eukaryotic cells, bacteria usually lack large membrane-bound structures in their cytoplasm such as a nucleus, mitochondria, chloroplasts and the other organelles present in eukaryotic cells.[55] However, some bacteria have protein-bound organelles in the cytoplasm which compartmentalize aspects of bacterial metabolism,[56][57] such as the carboxysome.[58] Additionally, bacteria have a multi-component cytoskeleton to control the localisation of proteins and nucleic acids within the cell, and to manage the process of cell division.[59][60][61]


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