The name Actinobacteria comes from the Greek words for rays and small rod, but Actinobacteria are very diverse. Their microscopic appearance can range from thin filamentous branching rods to coccobacilli. Some Actinobacteria are very large and complex, whereas others are among the smallest independently living organisms. Most Actinobacteria live in the soil, but some are aquatic. The vast majority are aerobic. One distinctive feature of this group is the presence of several different peptidoglycans in the cell wall.
The genus Actinomyces is a much studied representative of Actinobacteria. Actinomyces spp. play an important role in soil ecology, and some species are human pathogens. A number of Actinomyces spp. inhabit the human mouth and are opportunistic pathogens, causing infectious diseases like periodontitis (inflammation of the gums) and oral abscesses. The species A. israelii is an anaerobe notorious for causing endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart).
The genus Mycobacterium is represented by bacilli covered with a mycolic acid coat. This waxy coat protects the bacteria from some antibiotics, prevents them from drying out, and blocks penetration by Gram stain reagents. Because of this, a special acid-fast staining procedure is used to visualize these bacteria. The genus Mycobacterium is an important cause of a diverse group of infectious diseases. M. tuberculosis is the causative agent of tuberculosis, a disease that primarily impacts the lungs but can infect other parts of the body as well. It has been estimated that one-third of the world’s population has been infected with M. tuberculosis and millions of new infections occur each year. Treatment of M. tuberculosis is challenging and requires patients to take a combination of drugs for an extended time. Complicating treatment even further is the development and spread of multidrug-resistant strains of this pathogen.
Another pathogenic species, M. leprae, is the cause of Hansen’s disease (leprosy), a chronic disease that impacts peripheral nerves and the integrity of the skin and mucosal surface of the respiratory tract. Loss of pain sensation and the presence of skin lesions increase susceptibility to secondary injuries and infections with other pathogens.
Bacteria in the genus Corynebacterium contain diaminopimelic acid in their cell walls, and microscopically often form palisades, or pairs of rod-shaped cells resembling the letter V. Cells may contain metachromatic granules, intracellular storage of inorganic phosphates that are useful for identification of Corynebacterium. The vast majority of Corynebacterium spp. are nonpathogenic; however, C. diphtheria is the causative agent of diphtheria, a disease that can be fatal, especially in children. C. diphtheria produces a toxin that forms a pseudomembrane in the patient’s throat, causing swelling, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms that can become serious if untreated.
The genus Bifidobacterium consists of filamentous anaerobes, many of which are commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract, vagina, and mouth. In fact, Bifidobacterium spp. constitute a substantial part of the human gut microbiota and are frequently used as probiotics and in yogurt production.
The genus Gardnerella, contains only one species, G. vaginalis. This species is defined as “gram-variable” because its small coccobacilli do not show consistent results when Gram stained. Based on its genome, it is placed into the high G+C gram-positive group. G. vaginalis can cause bacterial vaginosis in women; symptoms are typically mild or even undetectable, but can lead to complications during pregnancy.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology