Cell Walls of Prokaryotes

The Cell Wall of Bacteria

Bacteria are protected by a rigid cell wall composed of peptidoglycans.

Learning Objectives

Recall the characteristics of a bacterial cell wall

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A cell wall is a layer located outside the cell membrane found in plants, fungi, bacteria, algae, and archaea.
  • A peptidoglycan cell wall composed of disaccharides and amino acids gives bacteria structural support.
  • The bacterial cell wall is often a target for antibiotic treatment.

Key Terms

  • binary fission: The process whereby a cell divides asexually to produce two daughter cells.
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Bacterial Cell Wall: The anatomy of bacterial cell structure.

Bacterial cells lack a membrane bound nucleus. Their genetic material is naked within the cytoplasm. Ribosomes are their only type of organelle. The term “nucleoid” refers to the region of the cytoplasm where chromosomal DNA is located, usually a singular, circular chromosome. Bacteria are usually single-celled, except when they exist in colonies. These ancestral cells reproduce by means of binary fission, duplicating their genetic material and then essentially splitting to form two daughter cells identical to the parent. A wall located outside the cell membrane provides the cell support, and protection against mechanical stress or damage from osmotic rupture and lysis. The major component of the bacterial cell wall is peptidoglycan or murein. This rigid structure of peptidoglycan, specific only to prokaryotes, gives the cell shape and surrounds the cytoplasmic membrane. Peptidoglycan is a huge polymer of disaccharides (glycan) cross-linked by short chains of identical amino acids (peptides) monomers. The backbone of the peptidoglycan molecule is composed of two derivatives of glucose: N-acetylglucosamine (NAG) and N-acetlymuramic acid (NAM) with a pentapeptide coming off NAM and varying slightly among bacteria. The NAG and NAM strands are synthesized in the cytosol of the bacteria. They are connected by inter-peptide bridges. They are transported across the cytoplasmic membrane by a carrier molecule called bactoprenol. From the peptidoglycan inwards all bacterial cells are very similar. Going further out, the bacterial world divides into two major classes: Gram positive (Gram +) and Gram negative (Gram -). The cell wall provides important ligands for adherence and receptor sites for viruses or antibiotics.

Gram-Negative Outer Membrane

The Gram-negative cell wall is composed of an outer membrane, a peptidoglygan layer, and a periplasm.

Learning Objectives

Recognize the characteristics of a gram-negative bacteria

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria contains lipopolysaccharides, proteins, and phospholipids.
  • The lipopolysaccharide component acts as a virulence factor and causes disease in animals.
  • More virulence factors are harbored in the periplasmic space between the outer membrane and the plasma membrane.

Key Terms

  • lipopolysaccharide: any of a large class of lipids conjugated with polysaccharides
  • endotoxin: Any toxin secreted by a microorganism and released into the surrounding environment only when it dies.
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Structure of Gram-negative cell wall: Gram-negative outer membrane composed of lipopolysaccharides.

In the Gram-negative Bacteria the cell wall is composed of a single layer of peptidoglycan surrounded by a membranous structure called the outer membrane. The gram-negative bacteria do not retain crystal violet but are able to retain a counterstain, commonly safranin, which is added after the crystal violet. The safranin is responsible for the red or pink color seen with a gram-negative bacteria. The Gram-negative’s cell wall is thinner (10 nanometers thick) and less compact than that of Gram-positive bacteria, but remains strong, tough, and elastic to give them shape and protect them against extreme environmental conditions. The outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria invariably contains a unique component, lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in addition to proteins and phospholipids. The LPS molecule is toxic and is classified as an endotoxin that elicits a strong immune response when the bacteria infect animals.

In Gram-negative bacteria the outer membrane is usually thought of as part of the outer leaflet of the membrane structure and is relatively permeable. It contains structures that help bacteria adhere to animal cells and cause disease. The peptidoglycan layer is non-covalently anchored to lipoprotein molecules called Braun’s lipoproteins through their hydrophobic head. Sandwiched between the outer membrane and the plasma membrane, a concentrated gel-like matrix (the periplasm) is found in the periplasmic space. It is in fact an integral compartment of the gram-negative cell wall and contains binding proteins for amino acids, sugars, vitamins, iron, and enzymes essential for bacterial nutrition. The periplasm space can act as reservoir for virulence factors and a dynamic flux of macromolecules representing the cell’s metabolic status and its response to environmental factors. Together, the plasma membrane and the cell wall (outer membrane, peptidoglycan layer, and periplasm) constitute the gram-negative envelope.

Gram-Positive Cell Envelope

Gram-positive bacteria have cell envelopes made of a thick layer of peptidoglycans.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast a gram-positive and negative stain

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Gram-positive bacteria stain violet by Gram staining due the presence of peptidoglycan in their cell wall.
  • Peptidoglycans are attached to negatively-charged lipoteichoic acid monomers important for cell direction and adherence.
  • Lipoteichoic acids are covalently linked to lipids within the cytoplasmic membrane, thus connecting the peptidoglycans to the cell cytoplasm.

Key Terms

  • Gram stain: A method of differentiating bacterial species into two large groups (Gram-positive and Gram-negative).

Gram-positive bacteria are stained dark blue or violet by Gram staining. While Gram staining is a valuable diagnostic tool in both clinical and research settings, not all bacteria can be definitively classified by this technique, thus forming Gram-variable and Gram-indeterminate groups as well.

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Gram-positive bacteria: These bacteria stain violet by Gram staining.

It is based on the chemical and physical properties of their cell walls. Primarily, it detects peptidoglycan, which is present in a thick layer in Gram-positive bacteria. A Gram-positive results in a purple/blue color while a Gram-negative results in a pink/red color. The Gram stain is almost always the first step in the identification of a bacterial organism, and is the default stain performed by laboratories over a sample when no specific culture is referred.

In Gram-positive bacteria, the cell wall is thick (15-80 nanometers), and consists of several layers of peptidoglycan. They lack the outer membrane envelope found in Gram-negative bacteria. Running perpendicular to the peptidoglycan sheets is a group of molecules called teichoic acids, which are unique to the Gram-positive cell wall. Teichoic acids are linear polymers of polyglycerol or polyribitol substituted with phosphates and a few amino acids and sugars.

The teichoic acid polymers are occasionally anchored to the plasma membrane (called lipoteichoic acid, LTA), and apparently directed outward at right angles to the layers of peptidoglycan. Teichoic acids give the Gram-positive cell wall an overall negative charge due to the presence of phosphodiester bonds between teichoic acid monomers. The functions of teichoic acid are not fully known but it is believed to serve as a chelating agent and means of adherence for the bacteria. These are essential to the viability of Gram-positive bacteria in the environment and provide chemical and physical protection.

One idea is that they provide a channel of regularly-oriented, negative charges for threading positively-charged substances through the complicated peptidoglycan network. Another theory is that teichoic acids are in some way involved in the regulation and assembly of muramic acid sub-units on the outside of the plasma membrane.

There are instances, particularly in the streptococci, wherein teichoic acids have been implicated in the adherence of the bacteria to tissue surfaces and are thought to contribute to the pathogenicity of Gram-positive bacteria.

Mycoplasmas and Other Cell-Wall-Deficient Bacteria

Some bacteria lack a cell wall but retain their ability to survive by living inside another host cell.

Learning Objectives

Distinguish between bacteria with and without cell walls

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Examples of bacteria that lack a cell wall are Mycoplasma and L-form bacteria.
  • Mycoplasma is an important cause of disease in animals and is not affected by antibiotic treatments that target cell wall synthesis.
  • Mycoplasma acquire cholesterol from the environment and form sterols to build their cytoplasmic membrane.

Key Terms

  • osmotic environment: environment with controlled net movement of molecules from a region of high solvent concentration to a region of low solvent concentration through a permeable membrane.

For most bacterial cells, the cell wall is critical to cell survival, yet there are some bacteria that do not have cell walls. Mycoplasma species are widespread examples and some can be intracellular pathogens that grow inside their hosts. This bacterial lifestyle is called parasitic or saprophytic. Cell walls are unnecessary here because the cells only live in the controlled osmotic environment of other cells. It is likely they had the ability to form a cell wall at some point in the past, but as their lifestyle became one of existence inside other cells, they lost the ability to form walls.

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L-form bacteria: L-form bacterial lack a cell wall structure.

Consistent with this very limited lifestyle within other cells, these microbes also have very small genomes. They have no need for the genes for all sorts of biosynthetic enzymes, as they can steal the final components of these pathways from the host. Similarly, they have no need for genes encoding many different pathways for various carbon, nitrogen and energy sources, since their intracellular environment is completely predictable. Because of the absence of cell walls, Mycoplasma have a spherical shape and are quickly killed if placed in an environment with very high or very low salt concentrations. However, Mycoplasma do have unusually tough membranes that are more resistant to rupture than other bacteria since this cellular membrane has to contend with the host cell factors. The presence of sterols in the membrane contributes to their durability by helping to increase the forces that hold the membrane together. Other bacterial species occasionally mutate or respond to extreme nutritional conditions by forming cells lacking walls, termed L-forms. This phenomenon is observed in both gram-positive and gram-negative species. L-forms have varied shapes and are sensitive to osmotic shock.

Cell Walls of Archaea

Archaeal cell walls differ from bacterial cell walls in their chemical composition and lack of peptidoglycans.

Learning Objectives

State the similarities between the cell walls of archaea and bacteria

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Archaea are single-celled microorganisms that lack a cell nucleus and membrane -bound organelles.
  • Like other living organisms, archaea have a semi-rigid cell wall that protects them from the environment.
  • The cell wall of archaea is composed of S-layers and lack peptidoglycan molecules with the exception of methanobacteria who have pseudopeptidoglycan in their cell wall.

Key Terms

  • cellulose: A complex carbohydrate that forms the main constituent of the cell wall in most plants and is important in the manufacture of numerous products, such as paper, textiles, pharmaceuticals, and explosives.
  • chitin: A complex polysaccharide, a polymer of N-acetylglucosamine, found in the exoskeletons of arthropods and in the cell walls of fungi; thought to be responsible for some forms of asthma in humans.
  • cytoplasm: The contents of a cell except for the nucleus. It includes cytosol, organelles, vesicles, and the cytoskeleton.

As with other living organisms, archaeal cells have an outer cell membrane that serves as a protective barrier between the cell and its environment. Within the membrane is the cytoplasm, where the living functions of the archeon take place and where the DNA is located. Around the outside of nearly all archaeal cells is a cell wall, a semi-rigid layer that helps the cell maintain its shape and chemical equilibrium. All three of these regions may be distinguished in the cells of bacteria and most other living organisms.

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Archaea: Cluster of halobacterium (archaea)

A closer look at each region reveals structural similarities but major differences in chemical composition between bacterial and archaeal cell wall. Archaea builds the same structures as other organisms, but they build them from different chemical components. For instance, the cell walls of all bacteria contain the chemical peptidoglycan. Archaeal cell walls do not contain this compound, though some species contain a similar one. It is assembled from surface-layer proteins called S-layers. Likewise, archaea do not produce walls of cellulose (as do plants) or chitin (as do fungi). The cell wall of archaeans is chemically distinct. Methanogens are the only exception and possess pseudopeptidoglycan chains in their cell wall that lacks amino acids and N-acetylmuramic acid in their chemical composition. The most striking chemical differences between Archaea and other living things lie in their cell membrane. There are four fundamental differences between the archaeal membrane and those of all other cells: (1) chirality of glycerol, (2) ether linkage, (3) isoprenoid chains, and (4) branching of side chains.

Damage to the Cell Wall

The cell wall is responsible for bacterial cell survival and protection against environmental factors and antimicrobial stress.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the effects that damage to the cell wall has on the bacterial cell

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria are protected by an external cell wall composed of varying layers of peptidoglycan.
  • Damage to bacterial cell wall compromises its integrity and creates imbalance of electrolytes that trigger cell death.
  • Some antibiotic classes act by inhibiting the synthesis of cell wall building blocks leading to cell lysis and death.

Key Terms

  • hydrolase: An enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of a substrate.
  • transpeptidase: Any enzyme that catalyzes the transfer of an amino or peptide group from one molecule to another

The cell wall is the principal stress-bearing and shape-maintaining element in bacteria. Its integrity is thus of critical importance to the viability of a particular cell. In both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, the scaffold of the cell wall consists of a cross-linked polymer peptidoglycan. The cell wall of gram-negative bacteria is thin (approximately only 10 nanometers in thickness), and is typically comprised of only two to five layers of peptidoglycan, depending on the growth stage. In gram-positive bacteria, the cell wall is much thicker (20 to 40 nanometers thick).

While the peptidoglycan provides the structural framework of the cell wall, teichoic acids, which make up roughly 50% of the cell wall material, are thought to control the overall surface charge of the wall. This affects murein hydrolase activity, resistance to antibacterial peptides, and adherence to surfaces. Although both of these molecules are polymerized on the surface of the cytoplasmic membrane, their precursors are assembled in the cytoplasm. Any event that interferes with the assembling of the peptidoglycan precursor, and the transport of that object across the cell membrane, where it will integrate into the cell wall, would compromise the integrity of the wall. Damage to the cell wall disturbs the state of cell electrolytes, which can activate death pathways (apoptosis or programmed cell death). Regulated cell death and lysis in bacteria plays an important role in certain developmental processes, such as competence and biofilm development. They also play an important role in the elimination of damaged cells, such as those irreversibly injured by environmental or antibiotic stress. An example of an antibiotic that interferes with bacterial cell wall synthesis is Penicillin. Penicillin acts by binding to transpeptidases and inhibiting the cross-linking of peptidoglycan subunits. A bacterial cell with a damaged cell wall cannot undergo binary fission and is thus certain to die.

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Penicillin mechanism of action: Penicillin acts by binding to penicillin binding proteins and inhibiting the cross-linking of peptidoglycan subunits.