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BACTERIA

I. Introduction
Bacteria [pl. of bacterium], microscopic unicellular prokaryotic organisms
characterized by the lack of a membrane-bound nucleus and membrane-bound
organelles. Once considered a part of the plant kingdom, bacteria were eventually
placed in a separate kingdom, Monera. Bacteria fall into one of two
groups, Archaebacteria (ancient forms thought to have evolved separately from other
bacteria) and Eubacteria. A recently proposed system classifies the Archaebacteria, or
Archaea, and the Eubacteria, or Bacteria, as major groupings (sometimes called
domains) above the kingdom level.
Bacteria were the only form of life on earth for 2 billion years. They were first
observed by Antony van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th cent.; bacteriology as an applied
science began to develop in the late 19th cent. as a result of research in medicine and
in fermentation processes, especially by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.

Bacteria are remarkably adaptable to diverse environmental conditions: they are
found in the bodies of all living organisms and on all parts of the earth—in land terrains
and ocean depths, in arctic ice and glaciers, in hot springs, and even in the
stratosphere. Our understanding of bacteria and their metabolic processes has been
expanded by the discovery of species that can live only deep below the earth's surface
and by species that thrive without sunlight in the high temperature and pressure
near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. There are more bacteria, as separate
individuals, than any other type of organism; there can be as many as 2.5 billion
bacteria in one gram of fertile soil.

II. Characteristics
Bacteria are grouped in a number of different ways. Most bacteria are of one of
three typical shapes—rod-shaped (bacillus), round (coccus, e.g., streptococcus), and
spiral (spirillum). An additional group, vibrios, appear as incomplete spirals. The
cytoplasm and plasma membrane of most bacterial cells are surrounded by a cell wall;
further classification of bacteria is based on cell wall characteristics (see Gram's stain).
They can also be characterized by their patterns of growth, such as the chains formed
by streptococci. Many bacteria, chiefly the bacillus and spirillum forms, are motile,
swimming about by whiplike movements of flagella; other bacteria have rigid rodlike
protuberances called pili that serve as tethers.
Some bacteria (those known as aerobic forms) can function metabolically only in
the presence of free or atmospheric oxygen; others (anaerobic bacteria) cannot grow in
the presence of free oxygen but obtain oxygen from compounds. Facultative anaerobes
can grow with or without free oxygen; obligate anaerobes are poisoned by oxygen.

III. Reproduction
In bacteria the genetic material is organized in a continuous strand of DNA. This
circle of DNA is localized in an area called the nucleoid, but there is no membrane
surrounding a defined nucleus as there is in the eukaryotic cells of protists, fungi, plants,
and animals (see eukaryote). In addition to the nucleoid, the bacterial cell may include
one or more plasmids, separate circular strands of DNA that can replicate
independently, and that are not responsible for the reproduction of the organism. Drug
resistance is often conveyed via plasmid genes.

Reproduction is chiefly by binary fission, cell division yielding identical daughter
cells. Some bacteria reproduce by budding or fragmentation. Despite the fact that these
processes should produce identical generations, the rapid rate of mutation possible in
bacteria makes them very adaptable. Some bacteria are capable of specialized types of
genetic recombination, which involves the transfer of nucleic acid by individual contact
(conjugation), by exposure to nucleic acid remnants of dead bacteria (transformation),
by exchange of plasmid genes, or by a viral agent, the bacteriophage (transduction).
Under unfavorable conditions some bacteria form highly resistant spores with thickened
coverings, within which the living material remains dormant in altered form until
conditions improve. Others, such as the radioactivity-resistant Deinococcus
radiodurans, can withstand serious damage by repairing their own DNA.

IV. Nutrition
Most bacteria are heterotrophic, living off other organisms. Most of these are
saprobes, bacteria that live off dead organic matter. The bacteria that cause disease are
heterotrophic parasites. There are also many non-disease-causing bacterial parasites,
many of which are helpful to their hosts. These include the "normal flora" of the human
body.
Autotrophic bacteria manufacture their own food by the processes
of photosynthesis and chemosynthesis (see autotroph). The photosynthetic bacteria
include the green and purple bacteria and the cyanobacteria. Many of the thermophilic
archaebacteria are chemosynthetic autotrophs.

V. Beneficial Bacteria
Harmless and beneficial bacteria far outnumber harmful varieties. Thousands of
bacterial species live commensally in humans, and many provide health benefits to
humans, aiding in digestion, for example, or helping to prevent the establishment of
colonies of pathogenic bacteria. Because they are capable of producing so many
enzymes necessary for the building up and breaking down of organic compounds,
bacteria are employed extensively by humans—for soil enrichment with leguminous
crops (see nitrogen cycle), for preservation by pickling, for fermentation (as in the
manufacture of alcoholic beverages, vinegar, and certain cheeses), for decomposition
of organic wastes (in septic tanks, in some sewage disposal plants, and in agriculture
for soil enrichment) and toxic wastes, and for curing tobacco, retting flax, and many
other specialized processes. Bacteria frequently make good objects for genetic study:
large populations grown in a short period of time facilitate detection of mutations, or rare
variations.
Reporter : Shairmaine K. Delim