Many bacterial cells secrete some extracellular material in the form of a capsule or a slime layer. A slime layer is loosely associated with the bacterium and can be easily washed off, whereas a capsule is attached tightly to the bacterium and has definite boundaries. Capsules can be seen under a light microscope by placing the cells in a suspension of India ink. The capsules exclude the ink and appear as clear halos surrounding the bacterial cells. Capsules are usually polymers of simple sugars (polysaccharides), although the capsule of Bacillus anthracis is made of polyglutamic acid. Most capsules are hydrophilic (“water-loving”) and may help the bacterium avoid desiccation (dehydration) by preventing water loss. Capsules can protect a bacterial cell from ingestion and destruction by white blood cells (phagocytosis). While the exact mechanism for escaping phagocytosis is unclear, it may occur because capsules make bacterial surface components more slippery, helping the bacterium to escape engulfment by phagocytic cells. The presence of a capsule in Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most important factor in its ability to cause pneumonia. Mutant strains of S. pneumoniae that have lost the ability to form a capsule are readily taken up by white blood cells and do not cause disease. The association of virulence and capsule formation is also found in many other species of bacteria.
Acinetobacter calcoaceticus The capsular material surrounding these bacteria (Acinetobacter calcoaceticus) is revealed in a suspension of India ink and viewed through a light microscope (magnified about 2,500×).From W.H. Taylor and E. Juni, “Pathways for Biosynthesis of a Bacterial Capsular Polysaccharide,” Journal of Bacteriology (May 1961)
A capsular layer of extracellular polysaccharide material can enclose many bacteria into a biofilm and serves many functions. Streptococcus mutans, which causes dental caries, splits the sucrose in food and uses one of the sugars to build its capsule, which sticks tightly to the tooth. The bacteria that are trapped in the capsule use the other sugar to fuel their metabolism and produce a strong acid (lactic acid) that attacks the tooth enamel. When Pseudomonas aeruginosa colonizes the lungs of persons with cystic fibrosis, it produces a thick capsular polymer of alginic acid that contributes to the difficulty of eradicating the bacterium. Bacteria of the genus Zoogloea secrete fibres of cellulose that enmesh the bacteria into a floc that floats on the surface of liquid and keeps the bacteria exposed to air, a requirement for the metabolism of this genus. A few rod-shaped bacteria, such as Sphaerotilus, secrete long chemically complex tubular sheaths that enclose substantial numbers of the bacteria. The sheaths of these and many other environmental bacteria can become encrusted with iron or manganese oxides.