Infectious Diseases | Characteristics of Prokaryotic Cells
Characteristics of Prokaryotic Cells
Cell theory states that the cell is the fundamental unit of life. However, cells vary significantly in size, shape, structure, and function. At the simplest level of construction, all cells possess a few fundamental components. These include cytoplasm (a gel-like substance composed of water and dissolved chemicals needed for growth), which is contained within a plasma membrane (also called a cell membrane or cytoplasmic membrane); one or more chromosomes, which contain the genetic blueprints of the cell; and ribosomes, organelles used for the production of proteins.
Beyond these basic components, cells can vary greatly between organisms, and even within the same multicellular organism. The two largest categories of cells—prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells—are defined by major differences in several cell structures. Prokaryotic cells lack a nucleus surrounded by a complex nuclear membrane and generally have a single, circular chromosome located in a nucleoid. Eukaryotic cells have a nucleus surrounded by a complex nuclear membrane that contains multiple, rod-shaped chromosomes.
All plant cells and animal cells are eukaryotic. Some microorganisms are composed of prokaryotic cells, whereas others are composed of eukaryotic cells. Prokaryotic microorganisms are classified within the domains Archaea and Bacteria, whereas eukaryotic organisms are classified within the domain Eukarya.
The structures inside a cell are analogous to the organs inside a human body, with unique structures suited to specific functions. Some of the structures found in prokaryotic cells are similar to those found in some eukaryotic cells; others are unique to prokaryotes. Although there are some exceptions, eukaryotic cells tend to be larger than prokaryotic cells. The comparatively larger size of eukaryotic cells dictates the need to compartmentalize various chemical processes within different areas of the cell, using complex membrane-bound organelles. In contrast, prokaryotic cells generally lack membrane-bound organelles; however, they often contain inclusions that compartmentalize their cytoplasm. Figure 3.12 illustrates structures typically associated with prokaryotic cells. These structures are described in more detail in the next section.
Common Cell Morphologies and Arrangements
Individual cells of a particular prokaryotic organism are typically similar in shape, or cell morphology. Although thousands of prokaryotic organisms have been identified, only a handful of cell morphologies are commonly seen microscopically. Figure 3.13 names and illustrates cell morphologies commonly found in prokaryotic cells. In addition to cellular shape, prokaryotic cells of the same species may group together in certain distinctive arrangements depending on the plane of cell division. Some common arrangements are shown in Figure 3.14.
Structures that enclose the cytoplasm and internal structures of the cell are known collectively as the cell envelope. In prokaryotic cells, the structures of the cell envelope vary depending on the type of cell and organism. Most (but not all) prokaryotic cells have a cell wall, but the makeup of this cell wall varies. All cells (prokaryotic and eukaryotic) have a plasma membrane (also called cytoplasmic membrane or cell membrane) that exhibits selective permeability, allowing some molecules to enter or leave the cell while restricting the passage of others.
The structure of the plasma membrane is often described in terms of the fluid mosaic model, which refers to the ability of membrane components to move fluidly within the plane of the membrane, as well as the mosaic-like composition of the components, which include a diverse array of lipid and protein components (Figure 3.21). The plasma membrane structure of most bacterial and eukaryotic cell types is a bilayer composed mainly of phospholipids formed with ester linkages and proteins. These phospholipids and proteins have the ability to move laterally within the plane of the membranes as well as between the two phospholipid layers.
Archaeal membranes are fundamentally different from bacterial and eukaryotic membranes in a few significant ways. First, archaeal membrane phospholipids are formed with ether linkages, in contrast to the ester linkages found in bacterial or eukaryotic cell membranes. Second, archaeal phospholipids have branched chains, whereas those of bacterial and eukaryotic cells are straight chained. Finally, although some archaeal membranes can be formed of bilayers like those found in bacteria and eukaryotes, other archaeal plasma membranes are lipid monolayers.
Proteins on the cell’s surface are important for a variety of functions, including cell-to-cell communication, and sensing environmental conditions and pathogenic virulence factors. Membrane proteins and phospholipids may have carbohydrates (sugars) associated with them and are called glycoproteins or glycolipids, respectively. These glycoprotein and glycolipid complexes extend out from the surface of the cell, allowing the cell to interact with the external environment (Figure 3.21). Glycoproteins and glycolipids in the plasma membrane can vary considerably in chemical composition among archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes, allowing scientists to use them to characterize unique species.
Plasma membranes from different cells types also contain unique phospholipids, which contain fatty acids. Phospholipid-derived fatty acid analysis (PLFA) profiles can be used to identify unique types of cells based on differences in fatty acids. Archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes each have a unique PFLA profile.
Membrane Transport Mechanisms
One of the most important functions of the plasma membrane is to control the transport of molecules into and out of the cell. Internal conditions must be maintained within a certain range despite any changes in the external environment. The transport of substances across the plasma membrane allows cells to do so.
Cells use various modes of transport across the plasma membrane. For example, molecules moving from a higher concentration to a lower concentration with the concentration gradient are transported by simple diffusion, also known as passive transport (Figure 3.22). Some small molecules, like carbon dioxide, may cross the membrane bilayer directly by simple diffusion. However, charged molecules, as well as large molecules, need the help of carriers or channels in the membrane. These structures ferry molecules across the membrane, a process known as facilitated diffusion (Figure 3.23).
Active transport occurs when cells move molecules across their membrane against concentration gradients (Figure 3.24). A major difference between passive and active transport is that active transport requires adenosine triphosphate (ATP) or other forms of energy to move molecules “uphill.” Therefore, active transport structures are often called “pumps.”
Group translocation also transports substances into bacterial cells. In this case, as a molecule moves into a cell against its concentration gradient, it is chemically modified so that it does not require transport against an unfavorable concentration gradient. A common example of this is the bacterial phosphotransferase system, a series of carriers that phosphorylates (i.e., adds phosphate ions to) glucose or other sugars upon entry into cells. Since the phosphorylation of sugars is required during the early stages of sugar metabolism, the phosphotransferase system is considered to be an energy neutral system.
Photosynthetic Membrane Structures
Some prokaryotic cells, namely cyanobacteria and photosynthetic bacteria, have membrane structures that enable them to perform photosynthesis. These structures consist of an infolding of the plasma membrane that encloses photosynthetic pigments such as green chlorophylls and bacteriochlorophylls. In cyanobacteria, these membrane structures are called thylakoids; in photosynthetic bacteria, they are called chromatophores, lamellae, or chlorosomes.
The primary function of the cell wall is to protect the cell from harsh conditions in the outside environment. When present, there are notable similarities and differences among the cell walls of archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes.
The major component of bacterial cell walls is called peptidoglycan (or murein); it is only found in bacteria. Structurally, peptidoglycan resembles a layer of meshwork or fabric (Figure 3.25). Each layer is composed of long chains of alternating molecules of N-acetylglucosamine (NAG) and N-acetylmuramic acid (NAM). The structure of the long chains has significant two-dimensional tensile strength due to the formation of peptide bridges that connect NAG and NAM within each peptidoglycan layer. In gram-negative bacteria, tetrapeptide chains extending from each NAM unit are directly cross-linked, whereas in gram-positive bacteria, these tetrapeptide chains are linked by pentaglycine cross-bridges. Peptidoglycan subunits are made inside of the bacterial cell and then exported and assembled in layers, giving the cell its shape.
Since peptidoglycan is unique to bacteria, many antibiotic drugs are designed to interfere with peptidoglycan synthesis, weakening the cell wall and making bacterial cells more susceptible to the effects of osmotic pressure. In addition, certain cells of the human immune system are able “recognize” bacterial pathogens by detecting peptidoglycan on the surface of a bacterial cell; these cells then engulf and destroy the bacterial cell, using enzymes such as lysozyme, which breaks down and digests the peptidoglycan in their cell walls.
The Gram staining protocol is used to differentiate two common types of cell wall structures (Figure 3.26). Gram-positive cells have a cell wall consisting of many layers of peptidoglycan totaling 30–100 nm in thickness. These peptidoglycan layers are commonly embedded with teichoic acids (TAs), carbohydrate chains that extend through and beyond the peptidoglycan layer. TA is thought to stabilize peptidoglycan by increasing its rigidity. TA also plays a role in the ability of pathogenic gram-positive bacteria such as Streptococcus to bind to certain proteins on the surface of host cells, enhancing their ability to cause infection. In addition to peptidoglycan and TAs, bacteria of the family Mycobacteriaceae have an external layer of waxy mycolic acids in their cell wall; these bacteria are referred to as acid-fast, since acid-fast stains must be used to penetrate the mycolic acid layer for purposes of microscopy (Figure 3.27). Staining bacteria for microscopy is discussed more later on.
Gram-negative cells have a much thinner layer of peptidoglycan (no more than about 4 nm thick) than gram-positive cells, and the overall structure of their cell envelope is more complex. In gram-negative cells, a gel-like matrix occupies the periplasmic space between the cell wall and the plasma membrane, and there is a second lipid bilayer called the outer membrane, which is external to the peptidoglycan layer (Figure 3.26). This outer membrane is attached to the peptidoglycan by murein lipoprotein. The outer leaflet of the outer membrane contains the molecule lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which functions as an endotoxin in infections involving gram-negative bacteria, contributing to symptoms such as fever, hemorrhaging, and septic shock. Each LPS molecule is composed of Lipid A, a core polysaccharide, and an O side chain that is composed of sugar-like molecules that comprise the external face of the LPS (Figure 3.28). The composition of the O side chain varies between different species and strains of bacteria. Parts of the O side chain called antigens can be detected using serological or immunological tests to identify specific pathogenic strains like Escherichia coli O157:H7, a deadly strain of bacteria that causes bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.
Archaeal cell wall structure differs from that of bacteria in several significant ways. First, archaeal cell walls do not contain peptidoglycan; instead, they contain a similar polymer called pseudopeptidoglycan (pseudomurein) in which NAM is replaced with a different subunit. Other archaea may have a layer of glycoproteins or polysaccharides that serves as the cell wall instead of pseudopeptidoglycan. Last, as is the case with some bacterial species, there are a few archaea that appear to lack cell walls entirely.
Glycocalyces and S-Layers
Although most prokaryotic cells have cell walls, some may have additional cell envelope structures exterior to the cell wall, such as glycocalyces and S-layers. A glycocalyx is a sugar coat, of which there are two important types: capsules and slime layers. A capsule is an organized layer located outside of the cell wall and usually composed of polysaccharides or proteins (Figure 3.29). A slime layer is a less tightly organized layer that is only loosely attached to the cell wall and can be more easily washed off. Slime layers may be composed of polysaccharides, glycoproteins, or glycolipids.
Glycocalyces allows cells to adhere to surfaces, aiding in the formation of biofilms (colonies of microbes that form in layers on surfaces). In nature, most microbes live in mixed communities within biofilms, partly because the biofilm affords them some level of protection. Biofilms generally hold water like a sponge, preventing desiccation. They also protect cells from predation and hinder the action of antibiotics and disinfectants. All of these properties are advantageous to the microbes living in a biofilm, but they present challenges in a clinical setting, where the goal is often to eliminate microbes.
The ability to produce a capsule can contribute to a microbe’s pathogenicity (ability to cause disease) because the capsule can make it more difficult for phagocytic cells (such as white blood cells) to engulf and kill the microorganism. Streptococcus pneumoniae, for example, produces a capsule that is well known to aid in this bacterium’s pathogenicity. Capsules are difficult to stain for microscopy; negative staining techniques are typically used.
An S-layer is another type of cell envelope structure; it is composed of a mixture of structural proteins and glycoproteins. In bacteria, S-layers are found outside the cell wall, but in some archaea, the S-layer serves as the cell wall. The exact function of S-layers is not entirely understood, and they are difficult to study; but available evidence suggests that they may play a variety of functions in different prokaryotic cells, such as helping the cell withstand osmotic pressure and, for certain pathogens, interacting with the host immune system.
Many bacterial cells have protein appendages embedded within their cell envelopes that extend outward, allowing interaction with the environment. These appendages can attach to other surfaces, transfer DNA, or provide movement. Filamentous appendages include fimbriae, pili, and flagella.
Fimbriae and Pili
Fimbriae and pili are structurally similar and, because differentiation between the two is problematic, these terms are often used interchangeably. The term fimbriae commonly refers to short bristle-like proteins projecting from the cell surface by the hundreds. Fimbriae enable a cell to attach to surfaces and to other cells. For pathogenic bacteria, adherence to host cells is important for colonization, infectivity, and virulence. Adherence to surfaces is also important in biofilm formation.
The term pili (singular: pilus) commonly refers to longer, less numerous protein appendages that aid in attachment to surfaces (Figure 3.30). A specific type of pilus, called the F pilus or sex pilus, is important in the transfer of DNA between bacterial cells, which occurs between members of the same generation when two cells physically transfer or exchange parts of their respective genomes.
Flagella are structures used by cells to move in aqueous environments. Bacterial flagella act like propellers. They are stiff spiral filaments composed of flagellin protein subunits that extend outward from the cell and spin in solution. The basal body is the motor for the flagellum and is embedded in the plasma membrane (Figure 3.31). A hook region connects the basal body to the filament. Gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria have different basal body configurations due to differences in cell wall structure.
Different types of motile bacteria exhibit different arrangements of flagella (Figure 3.32). A bacterium with a singular flagellum, typically located at one end of the cell (polar), is said to have a monotrichous flagellum. An example of a monotrichously flagellated bacterial pathogen is Vibrio cholerae, the gram-negative bacterium that causes cholera. Cells with amphitrichous flagella have a flagellum or tufts of flagella at each end. An example is Spirillum minor, the cause of spirillary (Asian) rat-bite fever or sodoku. Cells with lophotrichous flagella have a tuft at one end of the cell. The gram-negative bacillus Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic pathogen known for causing many infections, including “swimmer’s ear” and burn wound infections, has lophotrichous flagella. Flagella that cover the entire surface of a bacterial cell are called peritrichous flagella. The gram-negative bacterium E. coli shows a peritrichous arrangement of flagella.
Directional movement depends on the configuration of the flagella. Bacteria can move in response to a variety of environmental signals, including light (phototaxis), magnetic fields (magnetotaxis) using magnetosomes, and, most commonly, chemical gradients (chemotaxis). Purposeful movement toward a chemical attractant, like a food source, or away from a repellent, like a poisonous chemical, is achieved by increasing the length of runs and decreasing the length of tumbles. When running, flagella rotate in a counterclockwise direction, allowing the bacterial cell to move forward. In a peritrichous bacterium, the flagella are all bundled together in a very streamlined way (Figure 3.33), allowing for efficient movement. When tumbling, flagella are splayed out while rotating in a clockwise direction, creating a looping motion and preventing meaningful forward movement but reorienting the cell toward the direction of the attractant. When an attractant exists, runs and tumbles still occur; however, the length of runs is longer, while the length of the tumbles is reduced, allowing overall movement toward the higher concentration of the attractant. When no chemical gradient exists, the lengths of runs and tumbles are more equal, and overall movement is more random (Figure 3.34).
This part contains content from OpenStax College, Microbiology. OpenStax CNX. Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/microbiology
Chapters and sections were borrowed and adapted from the above existing OER textbook. Without these foundational texts, a lot more work would have been required to complete this project. Thank you to those who shared before us.
SA Bos, M.D.