Bacteria, Growth and Reproduction

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Bacteria, Growth and Reproduction

Forensic scientists often culture and grow bacteria found at crime scenes or extracted from remains. This process is often necessary to achieve a large enough population of bacteria upon which tests can then be performed.

An understanding of how bacteria grow, multiply, and change over time also helps explain many field or autopsy findings.

A population of bacteria in a liquid medium is referred to as a culture. In the laboratory, where growth conditions of temperature, light intensity, and nutrients can be made ideal for the bacteria, measurements of the number of living bacteria typically reveals four stages, or phases, of growth, with respect to time. Initially, the number of bacteria in the population is low. Often the bacteria are also adapting to the environment. This represents the lag phase of growth. Depending on the health of the bacteria, the lag phase may be short or long. The latter occurs if the bacteria are damaged or have just been recovered from deep-freeze storage.

After the lag phase, the numbers of living bacteria rapidly increases. Typically, the increase is exponential. That is, the population keeps doubling in number at the same rate. This is called the log or logarithmic phase of culture growth, and is the time when the bacteria are growing and dividing at their maximum speed.

The explosive growth of bacteria cannot continue forever in the closed conditions of a flask of growth medium. Nutrients begin to become depleted, the amount of oxygen becomes reduced, the pH changes, and toxic waste products of metabolic activity begin to accumulate. The bacteria respond to these changes in a variety of ways to do with their structure and activity of genes. With respect to bacteria numbers, the increase in the population stops and the number of living bacteria plateaus. This plateau period is called the stationary phase. Here, the number of bacteria growing and dividing is equaled by the number of bacteria that are dying.

Finally, as conditions in the culture continue to deteriorate, the proportion of the population that is dying becomes dominant. The number of living bacteria declines sharply over time in what is called the death or decline phase.

Bacteria growing as colonies on a solid growth medium also exhibit these growth phases in different regions of a colony. For example, the bacteria buried in the oldest part of the colony are often in the stationary or death phase, while the bacteria at the periphery of the colony are in the actively-dividing log phase of growth.

Culturing of bacteria is possible such that fresh growth medium can be added at rate equal to the rate at which culture is removed. The rate at which the bacteria grow is dependent on the rate of addition of the fresh medium. Bacteria can be tailored to grow relatively slow or fast and, if the set-up is carefully maintained, can be maintained for a long time.

Bacterial growth requires the presence of environmental factors. For example, if a bacterium uses organic carbon for energy and structure (chemoheterotrophic bacteria), then sources of carbon are needed. Such sources include simple sugars (glucose and fructose are two examples). Nitrogen is needed to make amino acids, proteins, lipids and other components. Sulphur and phosphorus are also needed for the manufacture of bacterial components. Other elements, such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, cobalt and zinc are necessary for the functioning of enzymes and other processes.

Bacterial growth is also often sensitive to temperature. Depending on the species, bacteria exhibit a usually limited range in temperatures in which they can grow and reproduce. For example, bacteria known as mesophiles prefer temperatures from 20°C50°C (68°F122°F). Outside this range growth and even survival is limited.

Other factors, which vary depending on species, required for growth include oxygen level, pH, osmotic pressure, light, and moisture.

The events of growth and division that are apparent from measurement of the numbers of living bacteria are the manifestation of a number of molecular events. At the level of the individual bacteria, the process of growth and replication is known as binary division. Binary division occurs in stages. First, the parent bacterium grows and becomes larger. Next, the genetic material inside the bacterium uncoils from the normal helical configuration and replicates. The two copies of the genetic material migrate to either end of the bacterium. Then a cross-wall known as a septum is initiated almost precisely at the middle of the bacterium. The septum grows inward as a ring from the inner surface of the membrane. When the septum is complete, an inner wall has been formed, which divides the parent bacterium into two so-called daughter bacteria. This whole process represents the generation time.

Bacteria can exchange genetic material via conjugation. Genetic recombination between bacteria (or protists) occurs via a cytoplasmic bridge between the organisms. A primitive form of exchange of genetic material between bacteria involving plasmids also can occur. Plasmids are small, circular, extrachromosomal DNA molecules that are capable of replication and are known to be capable of transferring genes among bacteria. For example, resistance plasmids carry genes for resistance to antibiotics from one bacterium to another, while other plasmids carry genes that confer pathogenicity (the ability to cause disease). In addition, the transfer of genes via bacteriophagesviruses that specifically parasitize bacteriaalso serves as a means of genetic recombination.

Bioengineering uses sophisticated techniques to purposely transfer DNA from one organism to another in order to give the second organism some new characteristic it did not have previously. For example, in a process called transformation, antibiotic susceptible bacteria that are induced to absorb manipulated plasmids placed in their environment can acquire resistance to that antibiotic substance due to the new genes they have incorporated. Similarly, in a process called transfection, specially constructed viruses are used to artificially inject bioengineered DNA into bacteria, giving infected cells some new characteristic.

Evolution has driven both bacterial diversity and bacterial adaptation. Some alterations are reversible, disappearing when the particular pressure is lifted. Other alterations are maintained and can even be passed on to succeeding generations of bacteria.

see also Anthrax; Bacterial biology; Bacteria, classification; Bacterial resistance and response to antibacterial agents; Biological weapons, genetic identification; Biosensor technologies; Bubonic plague; Decontamination methods.

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