22.1 Prokaryotic Diversity
Prokaryotes existed for billions of years before plants and animals appeared. Hot springs and hydrothermal vents may have been the environments in which life began. Microbial mats are thought to represent the earliest forms of life on Earth, and there is fossil evidence of their presence about 3.5 billion years ago. A microbial mat is a multi-layered sheet of prokaryotes that grows at interfaces between different types of material, mostly on moist surfaces. During the first 2 billion years, the atmosphere was anoxic and only anaerobic organisms were able to live. Cyanobacteria evolved from early phototrophs and began the oxygenation of the atmosphere. The increase in oxygen concentration allowed the evolution of other life forms. Fossilized microbial mats are called stromatolites and consist of laminated organo-sedimentary structures formed by precipitation of minerals by prokaryotes. They represent the earliest fossil record of life on Earth.
Bacteria and archaea grow in virtually every environment. Those that survive under extreme conditions are called extremophiles (extreme lovers). Some prokaryotes cannot grow in a laboratory setting, but they are not dead. They are in the viable-but-non-culturable (VBNC) state. The VBNC state occurs when prokaryotes enter a dormant state in response to environmental stressors. Most prokaryotes are social and prefer to live in communities where interactions take place. A biofilm is a microbial community held together in a gummy-textured matrix.
22.2 Structure of Prokaryotes
Prokaryotes (domains Archaea and Bacteria) are single-celled organisms lacking a nucleus. They have a single piece of circular DNA in the nucleoid area of the cell. Most prokaryotes have a cell wall that lies outside the boundary of the plasma membrane. Some prokaryotes may have additional structures such as a capsule, flagella, and pili. Bacteria and Archaea differ in the lipid composition of their cell membranes and the characteristics of the cell wall. In archaeal membranes, phytanyl units, rather than fatty acids, are linked to glycerol. Some archaeal membranes are lipid monolayers instead of bilayers.
The cell wall is located outside the cell membrane and prevents osmotic lysis. The chemical composition of cell walls varies between species. Bacterial cell walls contain peptidoglycan. Archaean cell walls do not have peptidoglycan, but they may have pseudopeptidoglycan, polysaccharides, glycoproteins, or protein-based cell walls. Bacteria can be divided into two major groups: Gram positive and Gram negative, based on the Gram stain reaction. Gram-positive organisms have a thick cell wall, together with teichoic acids. Gram-negative organisms have a thin cell wall and an outer envelope containing lipopolysaccharides and lipoproteins.
22.3 Prokaryotic Metabolism
Prokaryotes are the most metabolically diverse organisms; they flourish in many different environments with various carbon energy and carbon sources, variable temperature, pH, pressure, and water availability. Nutrients required in large amounts are called macronutrients, whereas those required in trace amounts are called micronutrients or trace elements. Macronutrients include C, H, O, N, P, S, K, Mg, Ca, and Na. In addition to these macronutrients, prokaryotes require various metallic elements for growth and enzyme function. Prokaryotes use different sources of energy to assemble macromolecules from smaller molecules. Phototrophs obtain their energy from sunlight, whereas chemotrophs obtain energy from chemical compounds.
Prokaryotes play roles in the carbon and nitrogen cycles. Carbon is returned to the atmosphere by the respiration of animals and other chemoorganotrophic organisms. Consumers use organic compounds generated by producers and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The most important contributor of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is microbial decomposition of dead material. Nitrogen is recycled in nature from organic compounds to ammonia, ammonium ions, nitrite, nitrate, and nitrogen gas. Gaseous nitrogen is transformed into ammonia through nitrogen fixation. Ammonia is anaerobically catabolized by some prokaryotes, yielding N2 as the final product. Nitrification is the conversion of ammonium into nitrite. Nitrification in soils is carried out by bacteria. Denitrification is also performed by bacteria and transforms nitrate from soils into gaseous nitrogen compounds, such as N2O, NO, and N2.
22.4 Bacterial Diseases in Humans
Devastating diseases and plagues have been among us since early times. There are records about microbial diseases as far back as 3000 B.C. Infectious diseases remain among the leading causes of death worldwide. Emerging diseases are those rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range. They can be new or re-emerging diseases (previously under control). Many emerging diseases affecting humans, such as brucellosis, are zoonoses. The WHO has identified a group of diseases whose re-emergence should be monitored: Those caused by bacteria include bubonic plague, diphtheria, and cholera.
Biofilms are considered responsible for diseases such as bacterial infections in patients with cystic fibrosis, Legionnaires’ disease, and otitis media. They produce dental plaque; colonize catheters, prostheses, transcutaneous, and orthopedic devices; and infect contact lenses, open wounds, and burned tissue. Biofilms also produce foodborne diseases because they colonize the surfaces of food and food-processing equipment. Biofilms are resistant to most of the methods used to control microbial growth. The excessive use of antibiotics has resulted in a major global problem, since resistant forms of bacteria have been selected over time. A very dangerous strain, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), has wreaked havoc recently. Foodborne diseases result from the consumption of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food.
22.5 Beneficial Prokaryotes
Pathogens are only a small percentage of all prokaryotes. In fact, our life would not be possible without prokaryotes. Nitrogen is usually the most limiting element in terrestrial ecosystems; atmospheric nitrogen, the largest pool of available nitrogen, is unavailable to eukaryotes. Nitrogen can be “fixed,” or converted into ammonia (NH3) either biologically or abiotically. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is exclusively carried out by prokaryotes. After photosynthesis, BNF is the second most important biological process on Earth. The most important source of BNF is the symbiotic interaction between soil bacteria and legume plants.
Microbial bioremediation is the use of microbial metabolism to remove pollutants. Bioremediation has been used to remove agricultural chemicals that leach from soil into groundwater and the subsurface. Toxic metals and oxides, such as selenium and arsenic compounds, can also be removed by bioremediation. Probably one of the most useful and interesting examples of the use of prokaryotes for bioremediation purposes is the cleanup of oil spills.
Human life is only possible due to the action of microbes, both those in the environment and those species that call us home. Internally, they help us digest our food, produce crucial nutrients for us, protect us from pathogenic microbes, and help train our immune systems to function correctly.