Bacterial Ecology

Abstract

Bacterial ecology is concerned with the interactions between bacteria and their biological and nonbiological environments and with the role of bacteria in biogeochemical element cycling. Many fundamental properties of bacteria are consequences of their small size. Thus, they can efficiently exploit very dilute solutions of organic matter and their potential growth rates are very high. Bacteria do not have a cytoskeleton and they are covered by a rigid cells wall. Therefore they can only take up dissolved low‐molecular‐weight compounds from their surroundings; when bacteria exploit polymeric compounds these must first be undergo extracellular hydrolysis. Bacteria have a great diversity with respect to types of metabolism that far exceeds the metabolic repertoire of eukaryotic organisms. Bacteria play a fundamental role in the biosphere and certain key processes such as, for example, the production and oxidation of methane, nitrate reduction and fixation of atmospheric nitrogen are exclusively carried out by different groups of bacteria. Some bacterial species – ‘extremophiles’ – thrive in extreme environments in which no eukaryotic organisms can survive with respect to temperature, salinity or pH.

Key Concepts:

  • Fundamental properties of bacteria are related to their small size and lack of cytoskeleton.

  • Bacteria display a great diversity in types of metabolism.

  • Bacteria play a key role in the biosphere in terms of transfer of matter and energy.

  • A number of fundamental biogeochemical processes are carried exclusively by bacteria.

  • Bacteria play an important role in all types of habitats including some that cannot support eukaryotic life.

Keywords: bacteria; biogeochemical cycling; microbial ecology; microbial loop; prokaryotes; symbiosis; syntrophy

Figure 1.

A simplified presentation of the vertical zonation of microbial respiration processes in an aquatic sediment. [CH2O] represents organic matter. In the oxic surface layer degradation takes place by oxygen respiration, which prevails because it is the energetically most favourable process. Since the vertical transport of oxygen is due to molecular diffusion it is quickly depleted, sometimes less than 1–2 mm beneath the surface. Other terminal electron acceptors then take over in a succession that reflects the descending energy yield of the involved respiration processes. In marine sediments sulfate reduction predominates quantitatively due to the high concentration of SO42− in seawater; in other systems methanogenesis plays an important role.

Figure 2.

A vertically cut slice of a 7‐mm‐thick cyanobacterial mat. The green colour of the top millimetre is due to filamentous cyanobacteria (the darker green towards the bottom part of this layer reflects higher pigment contents caused by exposure to lower light intensities). White carbonate precipitations are seen beneath the green layer. The purple colour of the middle part of the mat is due to photosynthetic purple bacteria; below them a green–brown colour discloses the presence of green sulfur bacteria.

Figure 3.

Mass occurrence of purple sulfur bacteria on the top of decaying seaweeds in a shallow bay. These photosynthetic bacteria depend on light and on sulfide as a reductant.

Figure 4.

The filamentous colourless sulfur bacterium Beggiatoa on the top of a sandy sediment (individual sand grains measure about 200 μm). A few colonies of the purple sulfur bacterium Thiocapsa are also visible.

Figure 5.

The microbial loop: in most ecological systems a substantial fraction of the primary production is first degraded by bacteria. In the process bacterial biomass is generated and this enters the food chains, typically via bacterivorous protozoa although virus is also a significant mortality factor for bacteria.

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References

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Further Reading

Dworkin M, Falkow S, Rosenberg E, Schleifer H‐K and Stackebrandt E (eds) (2006) The Prokaryotes, 2nd edn, vols 1–4. New York: Springer.

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How to Cite close
Fenchel, Tom(Sep 2011) Bacterial Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000339.pub3]