The bacterial cell surface (or envelope) can vary considerably in its structure, and it plays a central role in the properties and capabilities of the cell. The one feature present in all cells is the cytoplasmic membrane, which separates the inside of the cell from its external environment, regulates the flow of nutrients, maintains the proper intracellular milieu, and prevents the loss of the cell’s contents. The cytoplasmic membrane carries out many necessary cellular functions, including energy generation, protein secretion, chromosome segregation, and efficient active transport of nutrients. It is a typical unit membrane composed of proteins and lipids, basically similar to the membrane that surrounds all eukaryotic cells. It appears in electron micrographs as a triple-layered structure of lipids and proteins that completely surround the cytoplasm.
peptidoglycan layer of Bacillus coagulans A portion of the gram-positive bacterium Bacillus coagulans showing the cell wall’s thick peptidoglycan layer that surrounds the cell membrane.Visuals Unlimited/© T.J. Beveridge
Lying outside of this membrane is a rigid wall that determines the shape of the bacterial cell. The wall is made of a huge molecule called peptidoglycan (or murein). In gram-positive bacteria the peptidoglycan forms a thick meshlike layer that retains the blue dye of the Gram stain by trapping it in the cell. In contrast, in gram-negative bacteria the peptidoglycan layer is very thin (only one or two molecules deep), and the blue dye is easily washed out of the cell.
Peptidoglycan occurs only in the Bacteria (except for those without a cell wall, such as Mycoplasma). Peptidoglycan is a long-chain polymer of two repeating sugars (N-acetylglucosamine and N-acetyl muramic acid), in which adjacent sugar chains are linked to one another by peptide bridges that confer rigid stability. The nature of the peptide bridges differs considerably between species of bacteria but in general consists of four amino acids: L-alanine linked to D-glutamic acid, linked to either diaminopimelic acid in gram-negative bacteria or L-lysine, L-ornithine, or diaminopimelic acid in gram-positive bacteria, which is finally linked to D-alanine. In gram-negative bacteria the peptide bridges connect the D-alanine on one chain to the diaminopimelic acid on another chain. In gram-positive bacteria there can be an additional peptide chain that extends the reach of the cross-link; for example, there is an additional bridge of five glycines in Staphylococcus aureus.
Peptidoglycan synthesis is the target of many useful antimicrobial agents, including the β-lactam antibiotics (e.g., penicillin) that block the cross-linking of the peptide bridges. Some of the proteins that animals synthesize as natural antibacterial defense factors attack the cell walls of bacteria. For example, an enzyme called lysozyme splits the sugar chains that are the backbone of peptidoglycan molecules. The action of any of these agents weakens the cell wall and disrupts the bacterium.
In gram-positive bacteria the cell wall is composed mainly of a thick peptidoglycan meshwork interwoven with other polymers called teichoic acids (from the Greek word teichos, meaning “wall”) and some proteins or lipids. In contrast, gram-negative bacteria have a complex cell wall that is composed of multiple layers in which an outer membrane layer lies on top of a thin peptidoglycan layer. This outer membrane is composed of phospholipids, which are complex lipids that contain molecules of phosphate, and lipopolysaccharides, which are complex lipids that are anchored in the outer membrane of cells by their lipid end and have a long chain of sugars extending away from the cell into the medium. Lipopolysaccharides, often called endotoxins, are toxic to animals and humans; their presence in the bloodstream can cause fever, shock, and even death. For most gram-negative bacteria, the outer membrane forms a barrier to the passage of many chemicals that would be harmful to the bacterium, such as dyes and detergents that normally dissolve cellular membranes. Impermeability to oil-soluble compounds is not seen in other biological membranes and results from the presence of lipopolysaccharides in the membrane and from the unusual character of the outer membrane proteins. As evidence of the ability of the outer membrane to confer resistance to harsh environmental conditions, some gram-negative bacteria grow well in oil slicks, jet fuel tanks, acid mine drainage, and even bottles of disinfectants.
The Archaea have markedly different surface structures from the Bacteria. They do not have peptidoglycan; instead, their membrane lipids are made up of branched isoprenoids linked to glycerol by ether bonds. Some archaea have a wall material that is similar to peptidoglycan, except that the specific sugar linked to the amino acid bridges is not muramic acid but talosaminuronic acid. Many other archaeal species use proteins as the basic constituent of their walls, and some lack a rigid wall.