Bacteria - Metabolism


Further information: Microbial metabolism

Bacteria exhibit an extremely wide variety of metabolic types. The distribution of metabolic traits within a group of bacteria has traditionally been used to define their taxonomy, but these traits often do not correspond with modern genetic classifications. Bacterial metabolism is classified into nutritional groups on the basis of three major criteria: the kind of energy used for growth, the source of carbon, and the electron donors used for growth. An additional criterion of respiratory microorganisms are the electron acceptors used for aerobic or anaerobic respiration.

Nutritional types in bacterial metabolism
Nutritional type Source of energy Source of carbon Examples
Phototrophs Sunlight Organic compounds (photoheterotrophs) or carbon fixation (photoautotrophs) Cyanobacteria, Green sulfur bacteria, Chloroflexi, or Purple bacteria
Lithotrophs Inorganic compounds Organic compounds (lithoheterotrophs) or carbon fixation (lithoautotrophs) Thermodesulfobacteria, Hydrogenophilaceae, or Nitrospirae
Organotrophs Organic compounds Organic compounds (chemoheterotrophs) or carbon fixation (chemoautotrophs) Bacillus, Clostridium or Enterobacteriaceae

Carbon metabolism in bacteria is either heterotrophic, where organic carbon compounds are used as carbon sources, or autotrophic, meaning that cellular carbon is obtained by fixing carbon dioxide. Heterotrophic bacteria include parasitic types. Typical autotrophic bacteria are phototrophic cyanobacteria, green sulfur-bacteria and some purple bacteria, but also many chemolithotrophic species, such as nitrifying or sulfur-oxidising bacteria. Energy metabolism of bacteria is either based on phototrophy, the use of light through photosynthesis, or based on chemotrophy, the use of chemical substances for energy, which are mostly oxidised at the expense of oxygen or alternative electron acceptors (aerobic/anaerobic respiration).

Finally, bacteria are further divided into lithotrophs that use inorganic electron donors and organotrophs that use organic compounds as electron donors. Chemotrophic organisms use the respective electron donors for energy conservation (by aerobic/anaerobic respiration or fermentation) and biosynthetic reactions (e.g. carbon dioxide fixation), whereas phototrophic organisms use them only for biosynthetic purposes. Respiratory organisms use chemical compounds as a source of energy by taking electrons from the reduced substrate and transferring them to a terminal electron acceptor in a redox reaction. This reaction releases energy that can be used to synthesise ATP and drive metabolism. In aerobic organisms, oxygen is used as the electron acceptor. In anaerobic organisms other inorganic compounds, such as nitrate, sulfate or carbon dioxide are used as electron acceptors. This leads to the ecologically important processes of denitrification, sulfate reduction and acetogenesis, respectively.

Another way of life of chemotrophs in the absence of possible electron acceptors is fermentation, where the electrons taken from the reduced substrates are transferred to oxidised intermediates to generate reduced fermentation products (e.g. lactate, ethanol, hydrogen, butyric acid). Fermentation is possible, because the energy content of the substrates is higher than that of the products, which allows the organisms to synthesise ATP and drive their metabolism.

These processes are also important in biological responses to pollution; for example, sulfate-reducing bacteria are largely responsible for the production of the highly toxic forms of mercury (methyl- and dimethylmercury) in the environment. Non-respiratory anaerobes use fermentation to generate energy and reducing power, secreting metabolic by-products (such as ethanol in brewing) as waste. Facultative anaerobes can switch between fermentation and different terminal electron acceptors depending on the environmental conditions in which they find themselves.

Lithotrophic bacteria can use inorganic compounds as a source of energy. Common inorganic electron donors are hydrogen, carbon monoxide, ammonia (leading to nitrification), ferrous iron and other reduced metal ions, and several reduced sulfur compounds. Unusually, the gas methane can be used by methanotrophic bacteria as both a source of electrons and a substrate for carbon anabolism. In both aerobic phototrophy and chemolithotrophy, oxygen is used as a terminal electron acceptor, while under anaerobic conditions inorganic compounds are used instead. Most lithotrophic organisms are autotrophic, whereas organotrophic organisms are heterotrophic.

In addition to fixing carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, some bacteria also fix nitrogen gas (nitrogen fixation) using the enzyme nitrogenase. This environmentally important trait can be found in bacteria of nearly all the metabolic types listed above, but is not universal.

Regardless of the type of metabolic process they employ, the majority of bacteria are only able to take in raw materials in the form of relatively small molecules, which enter the cell by diffusion or through molecular channels in cell membranes. The Planctomycetes are the exception (as they are in possessing membranes around their nuclear material). It has recently been shown that Gemmata obscuriglobus is able to take in large molecules via a process that in some ways resembles endocytosis, the process used by eukaryotic cells to engulf external items.

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