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9: Microbial Growth

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    We are all familiar with the slimy layer on a pond surface or that makes rocks slippery. These are examples of biofilms—microorganisms embedded in thin layers of matrix material (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Biofilms were long considered random assemblages of cells and had little attention from researchers. Recently, progress in visualization and biochemical methods has revealed that biofilms are an organized ecosystem within which many cells, usually of different species of bacteria, fungi, and algae, interact through cell signaling and coordinated responses. The biofilm provides a protected environment in harsh conditions and aids colonization by microorganisms. Biofilms also have clinical importance. They form on medical devices, resist routine cleaning and sterilization, and cause health-acquired infections. Within the body, biofilms form on the teeth as plaque, in the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis, and on the cardiac tissue of patients with endocarditis. The slime layer helps protect the cells from host immune defenses and antibiotic treatments.

    Studying biofilms requires new approaches. Because of the cells’ adhesion properties, many of the methods for culturing and counting cells that are explored in this chapter are not easily applied to biofilms. This is the beginning of a new era of challenges and rewarding insight into the ways that microorganisms grow and thrive in nature.

    A micrograph showing spherical cells attached to a matrix on a surface. A photo of green water in a bucket.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Medical devices that are inserted into a patient’s body often become contaminated with a thin biofilm of microorganisms enmeshed in the sticky material they secrete. The electron micrograph (left) shows the inside walls of an in-dwelling catheter. Arrows point to the round cells of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria attached to the layers of extracellular substrate. The garbage can (right) served as a rain collector. The arrow points to a green biofilm on the sides of the container. (credit left: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit right: modification of work by NASA)

    • 9.1: How Microbes Grow
      The bacterial cell cycle involves the formation of new cells through the replication of DNA and partitioning of cellular components into two daughter cells. In prokaryotes, reproduction is always asexual, although extensive genetic recombination in the form of horizontal gene transfer takes place, as will be explored in a different chapter. Most bacteria have a single circular chromosome; however, some exceptions exist.
    • 9.2: Oxygen Requirements for Microbial Growth
      Ask most people “What are the major requirements for life?” and the answers are likely to include water and oxygen. Few would argue about the need for water, but what about oxygen? Can there be life without oxygen? The answer is that molecular oxygen is not always needed. The earliest signs of life are dated to a period when conditions on earth were highly reducing and free oxygen gas was essentially nonexistent.
    • 9.3: The Effects of pH on Microbial Growth
      Bacteria are generally neutrophiles. They grow best at neutral pH close to 7.0. Acidophiles grow optimally at a pH near 3.0. Alkaliphiles are organisms that grow optimally between a pH of 8 and 10.5. Extreme acidophiles and alkaliphiles grow slowly or not at all near neutral pH. Microorganisms grow best at their optimum growth pH. Growth occurs slowly or not at all below the minimum growth pH and above the maximum growth pH.
    • 9.4: Temperature and Microbial Growth
      Microorganisms thrive at a wide range of temperatures; they have colonized different natural environments and have adapted to extreme temperatures. Both extreme cold and hot temperatures require evolutionary adjustments to macromolecules and biological processes. Psychrophiles grow best in the temperature range of 0–15 °C whereas psychrotrophs thrive between 4 °C and 25 °C. Mesophiles grow best at moderate temperatures in the range of 20 °C to about 45 °C. Pathogens are usually mesophiles.
    • 9.5: Other Environmental Conditions that Affect Growth
      Microorganisms interact with their environment along more dimensions than pH, temperature, and free oxygen levels, although these factors require significant adaptations. We also find microorganisms adapted to varying levels of salinity, barometric pressure, humidity, and light.
    • 9.6: Media Used for Bacterial Growth
      The study of microorganisms is greatly facilitated if we are able to culture them, that is, to keep reproducing populations alive under laboratory conditions. Culturing many microorganisms is challenging because of highly specific nutritional and environmental requirements and the diversity of these requirements among different species.
    • 9.E: Microbial Growth (Exercises)

    Thumbnail: Heavy rains cause runoff of fertilizers into Lake Erie, triggering extensive algal blooms, which can be observed along the shoreline. Notice the brown unplanted and green planted agricultural land on the shore. (credit: NASA)

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