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Phycial and Environmental Requirements for Growth

©2000 Kenneth Todar, University of Wisconins-Madison

Physical and Environmental Requirements for Microbial Growth

The procaryotes exist in nature under an enormous range of physical conditions such as O2 concentration, Hydrogen ion concentration (pH) and temperature. The exclusion limits of life on the planet, with regard to environmental parameters, are always set by some microorganism, most often a procaryote, and frequently an Archaeon. Applied to all microorganisms is a vocabulary of terms used to describe their growth (ability to grow) within a range of physical conditions. A thermophile grows at high temperatures, an acidophile grows at low pH, an osmophile grows at high solute concentration, and so on. This nomenclature will be employed in this section to describe the response of the procaryotes to a variety of physical conditions.

The Effect of Oxygen

Oxygen is a universal component of cells and is always provided in large amounts by H2O. However, procaryotes display a wide range of responses to molecular oxygen O2 (Table 6).

Obligate aerobes require O2 for growth; they use O2 as a final electron acceptor in aerobic respiration.

Obligate anaerobes (occasionally called aerophobes) do not need or use O2 as a nutrient. In fact, O2 is a toxic substance, which either kills or inhibits their growth. Obligate anaerobic procaryotes may live by fermentation, anaerobic respiration, bacterial photosynthesis, or the novel process of methanogenesis.

Facultative anaerobes (or facultative aerobes) are organisms that can switch between aerobic and anaerobic types of metabolism. Under anaerobic conditions (no O2) they grow by fermentation or anaerobic respiration, but in the presence of O2 they switch to aerobic respiration.

Aerotolerant anaerobes are bacteria with an exclusively anaerobic (fermentative) type of metabolism but they are insensitive to the presence of O2. They live by fermentation alone whether or not O2 is present in their environment.

Table 6. Terms used to describe O2 Relations of Microorganisms.
GroupAerobicAnaerobicO2 Effect
Obligate AerobeGrowthNo growthRequired (utilized for aerobic respiration)
MicroaerophileGrowth if level not too highNo growthRequired but at levels below 0.2 atm
Obligate AnaerobeNo growthGrowth Toxic
Facultative Anaerobe (Facultative Aerobe)GrowthGrowthNot required for growth but utilized when available
Aerotolerant AnaerobeGrowthGrowthNot required and not utilized

The response of an organism to O2 in its environment depends upon the occurrence and distribution of various enzymes which react with O2 and various oxygen radicals that are invariably generated by cells in the presence of O2. All cells contain enzymes capable of reacting with O2. For example, oxidations of flavoproteins by O2 invariably result in the formation of H202 (peroxide) as one major product and small quantities of an even more toxic free radical, superoxide or O2.-. Also, chlorophyll and other pigments in cells can react with O2 in the presence of light and generate singlet oxygen, another radical form of oxygen which is a potent oxidizing agent in biological systems.

In aerobes and aerotolerant anaerobes the potential for lethal accumulation of superoxide is prevented by the enzyme superoxide dismutase (Figure 1). All organisms which can live in the presence of O2 (whether or not they utilize it in their metabolism) contain superoxide dismutase. Nearly all organisms contain the enzyme catalase, which decomposes H2O2. Even though certain aerotolerant bacteria such as the lactic acid bacteria lack catalase, they decompose H2O2 by means of peroxidase enzymes which derive electrons from NADH2 to reduce peroxide to H2O. Obligate anaerobes lack superoxide dismutase and catalase and/or peroxidase, and therefore undergo lethal oxidations by various oxygen radicals when they are exposed to O2.

All photosynthetic (and some nonphotosynthetic) organisms are protected from lethal oxidations of singlet oxygen by their possession of carotenoid pigments which physically react with the singlet oxygen radical and lower it to its nontoxic "ground" (triplet) state. Carotenoids are said to "quench" singlet oxygen radicals.

Figure 1. The action of superoxide dismutase, catalase and peroxidase. These enzymes detoxify oxygen radicals that are inevitably generated by living systems in the presence of O2. The distribution of these enzymes in cells determines their ability to exist in the presence of O2.

superoxide picture

Table 7. Distribution of superoxide dismutase, catalase and peroxidase in procaryotes with different O2 tolerances.

GroupSuperoxide dismutaseCatalasePeroxidase
Obligate aerobes and most facultative anaerobes (e.g. Enterics) ++-
Most aerotolerant anaerobes (e.g. Streptococci)+-+
Obligate anaerobes (e.g. Clostridia, Methanogens, Bacteroides)---

The Effect of pH on Growth

The pH, or hydrogen ion concentration, [H+], of natural environments varies from about 0.5 in the most acidic soils to about 10.5 in the most alkaline lakes. Appreciating that pH is measured on a logarithmic scale, the [H+] of natural environments varies over a billion-fold and some microorganisms are living at the extremes, as well as every point between the extremes! Most free-living procaryotes can grow over a range of 3 pH units, about a thousand fold change in [H+]. The range of pH over which an organism grows is defined by three cardinal points: the minimum pH, below which the organism cannot grow, the maximum pH, above which the organism cannot grow, and the optimum pH, at which the organism grows best. For most bacteria there is an orderly increase in growth rate between the minimum and the optimum and a corresponding orderly decrease in growth rate between the optimum and the maximum pH, reflecting the general effect of changing [H+] on the rates of enzymatic reaction (Figure 2).

Microorganisms which grow at an optimum pH well below neutrality (7.0) are called acidophiles. Those which grow best at neutral pH are called neutrophiles and those that grow best under alkaline conditions are called alkaliphiles. Obligate acidophiles, such as some Thiobacillus species, actually require a low pH for growth since their membranes dissolve and the cells lyse at neutrality. Several genera of Archaea, including Sulfolobus and Thermoplasma, are obligate acidophiles. Among eukaryotes, many fungi are acidophiles, and the champion of growth at low pH is the eukaryotic alga Cyanidium which can grow at a pH of 0.

In the construction and use of culture media, one must always consider the optimum pH for growth of a desired organism and incorporate buffers in order to maintain the pH of the medium in the changing milieu of bacterial waste products that accumulate during growth. Many pathogenic bacteria exhibit a relatively narrow range of pH over which they will grow. Most diagnostic media for the growth and identification of human pathogens have a pH near 7.

Figure 2. Growth rate vs pH for three environmental classes of procaryotes. Most free-living bacteria grow over a pH range of about three units. Note the symmetry of the curves below and above the optimum pH for growth.

pH picture

Table 8. Minimum, maximum and optimum pH for growth of certain procaryotes.

OrganismMinimum pHOptimum pHMaximum pH
Thiobacillus thiooxidans0.52.0-2.84.0-6.0
Sulfolobus acidocaldarius1.02.0-3.05.0
Bacillus acidocaldarius2.04.06.0
Zymomonas lindneri3.55.5-6.07.5
Lactobacillus acidophilus4.0-4.65.8-6.66.8
Staphylococcus aureus4.27.0-7.59.3
Escherichia coli4.46.0-7.09.0
Clostridium sporogenes5.0-5.86.0-7.68.5-9.0
Erwinia caratovora5.67.19.3
Pseudomonas aeruginosa5.66.6-7.08.0
Thiobacillus novellus5.77.09.0
Streptococcus pneumoniae6.57.88.3
Nitrobacter spp 6.67.6-8.610.0

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