Temporal range: Archaean – Recent
|Escherichia coli image is 8 micrometres wide.|
|A diagram of a typical bacterium|
Bacteria (sing. bacterium) are very small organisms. They are prokaryotic microorganisms. Bacterial cells do not have a nucleus, and most have no organelles with membranes around them. Most have a cell wall. They do have DNA, and their biochemistry is basically the same as other living things.
Almost all bacteria are so tiny they can only be seen through a microscope. Bacteria are made up of one cell, so they are a kind of unicellular organism. They are among the simplest single-celled organisms on Earth, and were one of the earliest forms of life. They include a number of extremophiles which live in extreme habitats.
There are probably more individual bacteria than any other sort of organism on the planet. Most bacteria live in the ground or in water, but many live inside or on the skin of other organisms, including humans. There are about ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells in each of our bodies. Some bacteria can cause diseases, but others help us in everyday activities like digesting food (gut flora). Some even work for us in factories, producing cheese and yogurt.
Reproduction and gene transfer
A bacterium reproduces (creates more bacteria) by dividing in half and creating two "daughter" cells. Each daughter is identical in shape to the parent, but smaller.
Bacteria do not have sexes, but they do transmit DNA by several kinds of horizontal gene transfer. It is this which permits them to pass resistance to antibiotics from one strain to another. The complete DNA sequence is known for many bacterial strains.
Bacteria vary widely in size and shape, but in general are at least ten times larger than viruses. A typical bacterium is about 1 µm (one micrometer) in diameter, so a thousand bacteria lined up would be one millimeter long. There are about five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth.
Bacteria are identified and grouped by their shapes. Bacilli are rod-shaped, cocci are ball-shaped, spirilla are spiral-shaped and vibrio are shaped like a comma or a boomerang.
Pathogenic bacteria, the harmful kind, enter the human body from the air, water or food. Once inside, these bacteria attach themselves to or invade specific cells in our respiratory system, digestive tract or any open wound. There they begin to reproduce and spread while using the human body as a source of their own nutrients and energy.
Researchers reported related studies that microbes thrive inside rocks up to 580 metres below the sea floor under 2.6 kilometres of ocean off the Pacific Northwest of the United States. According to one of the researchers, "You can find microbes everywhere — they're extremely adaptable to conditions, and survive wherever they are."
History of their classification
All modern ideas start with the sequence analysis of DNA and RNA. In 1987, Carl Woese, the forerunner of the molecular phylogeny revolution, divided bacteria into 11 divisions based on 16S ribosomal RNA (SSU) sequences:
- Proteobacteria: Purple bacteria and their relatives
- alpha subdivision (purple non-sulfur bacteria, rhizobacteria, Agrobacterium, Bartonella, Rickettsiae, Nitrobacter)
- beta subdivision (Rhodocyclus, (some) Thiobacillus, Alcaligenes, Spirillum, Nitrosovibrio)
- gamma subdivision (enterics, fluorescent pseudomonads, purple sulfur bacteria, Legionella, (some) Beggiatoa)
- delta subdivision (Sulfur and sulfate reducers (Desulfovibrio), Myxobacteria, Bdellovibrio)
- Gram-positive Eubacteria
- Cyanobacteria and chloroplasts (Aphanocapsa, Oscillatoria, Nostoc, Synechococcus, Gleoebacter, Prochloron)
- Spirochaetes and relatives
- Green sulfur bacteria (Chlorobium, Chloroherpeton)
- Bacteroides, Flavobacteria and relatives
- Bacteroides (Bacteroides, Fusobacterium)
- Flavobacterium group (Flavobacterium, Cytophaga, Saprospira, Flexibacter)
- Planctomyces and relatives
- Planctomyces group (Planctomyces, Pasteuria)
- Thermophiles (Isocystis pallida)
- Chlamydiae (Chlamydia psittaci, Chlamydia trachomatis)
- Radioresistant micrococci and relatives
- Deinococcus group (Deinococcus radiodurans)
- Thermophiles (Thermus aquaticus)
- Green non-sulfur bacteria and relatives
- Chloroflexus group (Chloroflexus, Herpetosiphon)
- Thermomicrobium group (Thermomicrobium roseum)
A biofilm of thermophilic bacteria in the outflow of Mickey Hot Springs, Oregon, approximately 20 mm thick.
Carboxysomes are protein-enclosed bacterial organelles. Top left is an electron microscope image of carboxysomes in Halothiobacillus neapolitanus, below is an image of purified carboxysomes. On the right is a model of their structure. Scale bars are 100 nm.
Helicobacter pylori electron micrograph, showing multiple flagella on the cell surface
A colony of Escherichia coli
Bacteria Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.