The primary function of the cell wall is to protect the cell from harsh conditions in the outside environment. When present, there are notable similarities and differences among the cell walls of archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes.
The major component of bacterial cell walls is called peptidoglycan (or murein); it is only found in bacteria. Structurally, peptidoglycan resembles a layer of meshwork or fabric. Each layer is composed of long chains of alternating molecules of N-acetylglucosamine (NAG) and N-acetylmuramic acid (NAM). The structure of the long chains has significant two-dimensional tensile strength due to the formation of peptide bridges that connect NAG and NAM within each peptidoglycan layer. In gram-negative bacteria, tetrapeptide chains extending from each NAM unit are directly cross-linked, whereas in gram-positive bacteria, these tetrapeptide chains are linked by pentaglycine cross-bridges. Peptidoglycan subunits are made inside of the bacterial cell and then exported and assembled in layers, giving the cell its shape.
Since peptidoglycan is unique to bacteria, many antibiotic drugs are designed to interfere with peptidoglycan synthesis, weakening the cell wall and making bacterial cells more susceptible to the effects of osmotic pressure. In addition, certain cells of the human immune system are able “recognize” bacterial pathogens by detecting peptidoglycan on the surface of a bacterial cell; these cells then engulf and destroy the bacterial cell, using enzymes such as lysozyme, which breaks down and digests the peptidoglycan in their cell walls.
The Gram staining protocol is used to differentiate two common types of cell wall structures. Gram-positive cells have a cell wall consisting of many layers of peptidoglycan totaling 30–100 nm in thickness. These peptidoglycan layers are commonly embedded with teichoic acids (TAs), carbohydrate chains that extend through and beyond the peptidoglycan layer. TA is thought to stabilize peptidoglycan by increasing its rigidity. TA also plays a role in the ability of pathogenic gram-positive bacteria such as Streptococcus to bind to certain proteins on the surface of host cells, enhancing their ability to cause infection. In addition to peptidoglycan and TAs, bacteria of the family Mycobacteriaceae have an external layer of waxy mycolic acids in their cell wall; as described in Staining Microscopic Specimens, these bacteria are referred to as acidfast, since acid-fast stains must be used to penetrate the mycolic acid layer for purposes of microscopy.
Gram-negative cells have a much thinner layer of peptidoglycan (no more than about 4 nm thick) than grampositive cells, and the overall structure of their cell envelope is more complex. In gram-negative cells, a gel-like matrix occupies the periplasmic space between the cell wall and the plasma membrane, and there is a second lipid bilayer called the outer membrane, which is external to the peptidoglycan layer. This outer membrane is attached to the peptidoglycan by murein lipoprotein. The outer leaflet of the outer membrane contains the molecule lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which functions as an endotoxin in infections involving gram-negative bacteria, contributing to symptoms such as fever, hemorrhaging, and septic shock. Each LPS molecule is composed of Lipid A, a core polysaccharide, and an O side chain that is composed of sugar-like molecules that comprise the external face of the LPS. The composition of the O side chain varies between different species and strains of bacteria. Parts of the O side chain called antigens can be detected using serological or immunological tests to identify specific pathogenic strains like Escherichia coli O157:H7, a deadly strain of bacteria that causes bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.
Archaeal cell wall structure differs from that of bacteria in several significant ways. First, archaeal cell walls do not contain peptidoglycan; instead, they contain a similar polymer called pseudopeptidoglycan (pseudomurein) in which NAM is replaced with a different subunit. Other archaea may have a layer of glycoproteins or polysaccharides that serves as the cell wall instead of pseudopeptidoglycan. Last, as is the case with some bacterial species, there are a few archaea that appear to lack cell walls entirely.
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