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4.3.2: Metabolic Lifestyles

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    Organisms can be identified according to the source of carbon they use for metabolism as well as their energy source. The prefixes auto- (“self”) and hetero- (“other”) refer to the origins of the carbon sources various organisms can use. Organisms that convert inorganic carbon dioxide (CO2) into organic carbon compounds are autotrophs. Plants and cyanobacteria are well-known examples of autotrophs. Conversely, heterotrophs rely on more complex organic carbon compounds as nutrients; these are provided to them initially by autotrophs. Many organisms, ranging from humans to many prokaryotes, including the well-studied Escherichia coli, are heterotrophic.  All pathogens are heterotrophic because their carbon source is their host.

    Organisms can also be identified by the energy source they use. All energy is derived from the transfer of electrons, but the source of electrons differs between various types of organisms. The prefixes photo- (“light”) and chemo- (“chemical”) refer to the energy sources that various organisms use. Those that get their energy for electron transfer from light are phototrophs, whereas chemotrophs obtain energy for electron transfer by breaking chemical bonds. There are two types of chemotrophs: organotrophs and lithotrophs. Organotrophs, including humans, fungi, and many prokaryotes, are chemotrophs that obtain energy from organic compounds. Lithotrophs (“litho” means “rock”) are chemotrophs that get energy from inorganic compounds, including hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and reduced iron. Lithotrophy is unique to the microbial world.

    The strategies used to obtain both carbon and energy can be combined for the classification of organisms according to nutritional type. Most organisms are chemoheterotrophs because they use organic molecules as both their electron and carbon sources. Table summarizes this and the other classifications.


    Table Classifications of Organisms by Energy and Carbon Source
    Classifications Energy Source Carbon Source Examples
    Chemotrophs Chemoautotrophs Chemical Inorganic Hydrogen-, sulfur-, iron-, nitrogen-, and carbon monoxide-oxidizing bacteria
    Chemoheterotrophs Chemical Organic compounds All animals, most fungi, protozoa, and bacteria
    Phototrophs Photoautotrophs Light Inorganic All plants, algae, cyanobacteria, and green and purple sulfur bacteria
    Photoheterotrophs Light Organic compounds Green and purple nonsulfur bacteria, heliobacteria

    4.3.2: Metabolic Lifestyles is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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