The fact that pathogenic bacteria are constantly battling their host’s immune system might account for the bewildering number of different strains, or types, of bacteria that belong to the same species but are distinguishable by serological tests. Microbiologists often identify bacteria by the presence of specific molecules on their cell surfaces, which are detected with specific antibodies. Antibodies are serum proteins that bind very tightly to foreign molecules (antigens) in an immune reaction aimed at removing or destroying the antigens. Antibodies have remarkable specificity, and the substitution of even one amino acid in a protein might prevent that protein from being recognized by an antibody.
For many bacterial species there are thousands of different strains (called serovars, for serological variants), which differ from one another mainly or solely in the antigenic identity of their lipopolysaccharide, flagella, or capsule. Different serovars of enteric bacteria—such as E. coli and Salmonella enterica, for example—are often found to be associated with the ability to inhabit different host animals or to cause different diseases. Formation of these numerous serovars reflects the ability of bacteria to respond effectively to the intense defensive actions of the immune system.