Scientists have studied prokaryotes for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1966 that scientist Thomas Brock (1926–) discovered that certain bacteria can live in boiling water. This led many to wonder whether prokaryotes may also live in other extreme environments, such as at the bottom of the ocean, at high altitudes, or inside volcanoes, or even on other planets.
Prokaryotes have an important role in changing, shaping, and sustaining the entire biosphere. They can produce proteins and other substances used by molecular biologists in basic research and in medicine and industry. For example, the bacterium Shewanella lives in the deep sea, where oxygen is scarce. It grows long appendages, which have special sensors used to seek the limited oxygen in its environment. It can also digest toxic waste and generate electricity. Other species of prokaryotes can produce more oxygen than the entire Amazon rainforest, while still others supply plants, animals, and humans with usable forms of nitrogen; and inhabit our body, protecting us from harmful microorganisms and producing some vitally important substances. This chapter will examine the diversity, structure, and function of prokaryotes.
- 4.1: Prokaryote Habitats, Relationships, and Microbiomes
- Prokaryotes are unicellular microorganisms whose cells have no nucleus. Prokaryotes can be found everywhere on our planet, even in the most extreme environments. Prokaryotes are very flexible metabolically, so they are able to adjust their feeding to the available natural resources. Prokaryotes live in communities that interact among themselves and with large organisms that they use as hosts (including humans).
- 4.2: Proteobacteria
- Proteobacteria is a phylum of gram-negative bacteria and are classified into the classes alpha-, beta-, gamma-, delta- and epsilonproteobacteria, each class having separate orders, families, genera, and species. Alphaproteobacteria are oligotrophs. The taxa chlamydias and rickettsias are obligate intracellular pathogens, feeding on cells of host organisms; they are metabolically inactive outside of the host cell. Some Alphaproteobacteria can convert atmospheric nitrogen to nitrites.
- 4.3: Nonproteobacteria Gram-negative Bacteria and Phototrophic Bacteria
- Gram-negative nonproteobacteria include the taxa spirochetes; the Cytophaga, Fusobacterium, Bacteroides group; Planctomycetes; and many representatives of phototrophic bacteria. Spirochetes are motile, spiral bacteria with a long, narrow body; they are difficult or impossible to culture. Several genera of spirochetes contain human pathogens that cause such diseases as syphilis and Lyme disease. Cytophaga, Fusobacterium, and Bacteroides are classified together as a phylum called the CFB group.
- 4.4: Gram-positive Bacteria
- Gram-positive bacteria are a very large and diverse group of microorganisms. Understanding their taxonomy and knowing their unique features is important for diagnostics and treatment of infectious diseases. Gram-positive bacteria are classified into high G+C gram-positive and low G+C gram-positive bacteria, based on the prevalence of guanine and cytosine nucleotides in their genome.
- 4.5: Deeply Branching Bacteria
- Deeply branching bacteria are phylogenetically the most ancient forms of life, being the closest to the last universal common ancestor. Deeply branching bacteria include many species that thrive in extreme environments that are thought to resemble conditions on earth billions of years ago. Deeply branching bacteria are important for our understanding of evolution; some of them are used in industry
- 4.6: Archaea
- Archaea are unicellular, prokaryotic microorganisms that differ from bacteria in their genetics, biochemistry, and ecology. Some archaea are extremophiles, living in environments with extremely high or low temperatures, or extreme salinity. Only archaea are known to produce methane. Methane-producing archaea are called methanogens. Halophilic archaea prefer a concentration of salt close to saturation and perform photosynthesis using bacteriorhodopsin.
Thumbnail: A cladogram linking all major groups of living organisms to the LUCA (the black trunk at the bottom), based on ribosomal RNA sequence data.