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Toolbox  –  Understand

Bacteria

Bacteria are found all around us; in the air we breathe, in the soil and water, even inside and on our bodies. They are tiny single-celled organisms, only a few micrometers in size, and the individual cells can only be seen under a microscope.

On some surfaces, for example when grown on agar plates in the laboratory, bacteria can form colonies that can be made up of several hundred thousands of cells and thus are visible to the eye.

Electron microscopy image of individual Salmonella bacteria (left) and colonies of Salmonella growing on agar (right).
Figure 1. Salmonella typhimurium cells visualized by scanning electron microscope (left) and colonies of S. typhimurium growing on agar (right). Photo: Courtesy of Prof. D.I. Andersson (left) and Dr. M. Pränting (right).

Generation time of bacteria in relation to man

Bacteria multiply fast and can quickly reach large populations. Some fast growing species like Clostridium perfringens and Escherichia coli can double every 15 to 20 minutes in favorable environments. Here is a theoretical example to demonstrate how fast bacteria grow in relation to man*:

Bacteria Man
100 generations ≈ 24 hours 100 generations ≈ 2,000 years
1000 generation ≈ 10 days 1000 generations ≈ 20,000 years

*Calculation based on a generation time of 15 minutes for bacteria and 20 years for man.

Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria

Bacteria can be broadly categorized into two groups: Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, based on the structure and composition of the cell wall and membranes surrounding the bacterial cell. This classification is named after the Danish scientist Hans Christian Gram who developed a staining method for bacteria. Depending on how different colored stains enters and remains in the bacterial cell wall after treatment, bacteria are stained purple (Gram-positive bacteria) or pink/red (Gram-negative bacteria), which can be seen under the microscope. The structure of the cell wall is one of the factors that influences bacterial susceptibility to different antibiotics. Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae are examples of Gram-positive bacteria, while E. coli and Salmonella typhimurium are examples of Gram-negative bacteria.

Schematic image of gram-positive bacteria surrounded by a plasma membrane and a thick mesh-like peptidoglycan cell wall
Figure 2. Cell envelope structure of Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. Peptidoglycan: mesh-like cell wall layer; cytoplasm: area inside the cell membrane; LPS: lipopolysaccharide, molecule found in the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria; Porin: pore in the membrane; OM: Outer membrane; IM: inner membrane; Periplasmic space: area between OM and IM. Courtesy of Dr. E. Gullberg.

DNA and genes

All the information the bacterium needs to carry out its normal life and function is stored as DNA in the bacterial chromosome. Bacteria usually have a single, circular chromosome. Within the chromosome, there are genes, which are specific pieces of DNA that give instructions to the cell on how to build molecules called proteins. Proteins carry out many of the cell’s functions such as transporting nutrients and harvesting energy. A typical bacterium has a couple of thousand genes, as compared to about 20,000-25,000 genes in humans. Sometimes the function of a gene can be disrupted or altered during bacterial growth due to mutations in the DNA; mistakes that may occur when bacteria are producing copies of their chromosomes. Read more about how mutations can lead to antibiotic resistance here: Antibiotic resistance – Mutation and selection.

Selected Resources

Resource Description
Microbiology Online – Introducing Microbes Learn more about bacteria and other microbes in this online textbook.
Eric’s Medical Lectures: Classification of Bacteria Classification of bacteria, introductory slide show lecture (22 min, narrated).
Genes vs. DNA vs. Chromosomes – Instant Egghead #19 Organization of genomes in humans: What are DNA, genes and chromosomes? (3 min).
Analogies comparing the sizes of bacteria, viruses and human cells (2 min).
A video explaining the structure of bacteria (9 min).