The Bacilli


Related Posts:

(a) In this gram-stained specimen, the violet rod-shaped cells forming chains are the gram-positive bacteria Bacillus cereus. The small, pink cells are the gram-negative bacteria Escherichia coli. (b) In this culture, white colonies of B. cereus have been grown on sheep blood agar. (credit a: modification of work by “Bibliomaniac 15”/Wikimedia Commons; credit b: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

The name of the class Bacilli suggests that it is made up of bacteria that are bacillus in shape, but it is a morphologically diverse class that includes bacillus-shaped and cocccus-shaped genera. Among the many genera in this class are two that are very important clinically: Bacillus and Staphylococcus.

Bacteria in the genus Bacillus are bacillus in shape and can produce endospores. They include aerobes or facultative anaerobes. A number of Bacillus spp. are used in various industries, including the production of antibiotics (e.g., barnase), enzymes (e.g., alpha-amylase, BamH1 restriction endonuclease), and detergents (e.g., subtilisin).

Two notable pathogens belong to the genus Bacillus. B. anthracis is the pathogen that causes anthrax, a severe disease that affects wild and domesticated animals and can spread from infected animals to humans. Anthrax manifests in humans as charcoal-black ulcers on the skin, severe enterocolitis, pneumonia, and brain damage due to swelling. If untreated, anthrax is lethal. B. cereus, a closely related species, is a pathogen that may cause food poisoning. It is a rod-shaped species that forms chains. Colonies appear milky white with irregular shapes when cultured on blood agar. One other important species is B. thuringiensis. This bacterium produces a number of substances used as insecticides because they are toxic for insects.

The genus Staphylococcus also belongs to the class Bacilli, even though its shape is coccus rather than a bacillus. The name Staphylococcus comes from a Greek word for bunches of grapes, which describes their microscopic appearance in culture. Staphylococcus spp. are facultative anaerobic, halophilic, and nonmotile. The two beststudied species of this genus are S. epidermidis and S. aureus.

This SEM of Staphylococcus aureus illustrates the typical “grape-like” clustering of cells. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

S. epidermidis, whose main habitat is the human skin, is thought to be nonpathogenic for humans with healthy immune systems, but in patients with immunodeficiency, it may cause infections in skin wounds and prostheses (e.g., artificial joints, heart valves). S. epidermidis is also an important cause of infections associated with intravenous catheters. This makes it a dangerous pathogen in hospital settings, where many patients may be immunocompromised.

Strains of S. aureus cause a wide variety of infections in humans, including skin infections that produce boils, carbuncles, cellulitis, or impetigo. Certain strains of S. aureus produce a substance called enterotoxin, which can cause severe enteritis, often called staph food poisoning. Some strains of S. aureus produce the toxin responsible for toxic shock syndrome, which can result in cardiovascular collapse and death.

Many strains of S. aureus have developed resistance to antibiotics. Some antibiotic-resistant strains are designated as methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant S. aureus (VRSA). These strains are some of the most difficult to treat because they exhibit resistance to nearly all available antibiotics, not just methicillin and vancomycin. Because they are difficult to treat with antibiotics, infections can be lethal. MRSA and VRSA are also contagious, posing a serious threat in hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis facilities, and other places where there are large populations of elderly, bedridden, and/or immunocompromised patients.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: