- Describe the ways in which prokaryotes get energy and carbon for life processes
Like all living things, prokaryotes need energy and carbon. They meet these needs in a variety of ways. In fact, prokaryotes have just about every possible type of metabolism. They may get energy from light (photo) or chemical compounds (chemo). They may get carbon from carbon dioxide (autotroph) or other living things (heterotroph). Most prokaryotes are chemoheterotrophs. They depend on other organisms for both energy and carbon. Many break down organic wastes and the remains of dead organisms. They play vital roles as decomposers and help recycle carbon and nitrogen. Photoautotrophs are important producers. They are especially important in aquatic ecosystems.
Classification of Prokaryotes Based on Metabolism
Two major nutritional needs can be used to group prokaryotes. These are (1) carbon metabolism, their source of carbon for building organic molecules within the cells, and (2) energy metabolism, their source of energy used for growth.
In terms of carbon metabolism, prokaryotes are classified as either heterotrophic or autotrophic:
- Heterotrophic organisms use organic compounds, usually from other organisms, as carbon sources.
- Autotrophic organisms use carbon dioxide (CO2) as their only source or their main source of carbon. Many autotrophic bacteria are photosynthetic, and get their carbon from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This process of capturing inorganic carbon and converting it to organic sugar molecules is known as carbon fixation.
Energy metabolism in prokaryotes is classified as one of the following:
- Phototrophic organisms capture light energy from the sun and convert it into chemical energy inside their cells.
- Chemotrophic organisms break down either organic or inorganic molecules to supply energy for the cell. Some chemotrophic organisms can also use their organic energy-supplying molecules as a carbon supply, which would make them chemoheterotrophs.
Organisms are then classified as follows:
- Photoheterotrophs are organisms that capture light energy to convert to chemical energy in the cells, but they get carbon from organic sources (other organisms). Examples are purple non-sulfur bacteria, green non-sulfur bacteria and heliobacteria.
- Chemoheterotrophs are organisms that get their energy source and carbon source from organic sources. Chemoheterotrophs must consume organic building blocks that they are unable to make themselves. Most get their energy from organic molecules such as sugars. This nutritional mode is very common among eukaryotes, including humans.
- Photoautotrophs are cells that capture light energy, and use carbon dioxide as their carbon source. There are many photoautotrophic prokaryotes, which include cyanobacteria. Photoautotrophic prokaryotes use similar compounds to those of plants to trap light energy.
- Chemoautotrophs are cells that break down inorganic molecules to supply energy for the cell, and use carbon dioxide as a carbon source. Chemoautotrophs include prokaryotes that break down hydrogen sulfide (H2S the “rotten egg” smelling gas), and ammonia (NH4). Nitrosomonas, a species of soil bacterium, oxidizes NH4+ to nitrite (NO2−). This reaction releases energy that the bacteria use. Many chemoautotrophs also live in extreme environments such as deep sea vents (extremophiles).
In Summary: How Prokaryotes Get Energy
Prokaryotes fulfill their carbon and energy needs in various ways. They may be photoautotrophs, chemoautotrophs, photoheterotrophs, or chemoheterotrophs.
|Nutritional mode||Energy source||Carbon source|
|Photoautotroph||Light||Carbon dioxide (or related compounds)|
|Chemoautotroph||Chemical compounds||Carbon dioxide (or related compounds)|
|Chemoheterotroph||Chemical compounds||Organic compounds|