Many ecosystems are still free of molecular oxygen. Some are found in extreme locations, such as deep in the ocean or in earth’s crust; others are part of our everyday landscape, such as marshes, bogs, and sewers. Within the bodies of humans and other animals, regions with little or no oxygen provide an anaerobic environment for microorganisms.
We can easily observe different requirements for molecular oxygen by growing bacteria in thioglycolate tube cultures. A test-tube culture starts with autoclaved thioglycolate medium containing a low percentage of agar to allow motile bacteria to move throughout the medium. Thioglycolate has strong reducing properties and autoclaving flushes out most of the oxygen. The tubes are inoculated with the bacterial cultures to be tested and incubated at an appropriate temperature. Over time, oxygen slowly diffuses throughout the thioglycolate tube culture from the top. Bacterial density increases in the area where oxygen concentration is best suited for the growth of that particular organism.
The growth of bacteria with varying oxygen requirements in thioglycolate tubes is illustrated in the image below. In tube A, all the growth is seen at the top of the tube. The bacteria are obligate (strict) aerobes that cannot grow without an abundant supply of oxygen. Tube B looks like the opposite of tube A. Bacteria grow at the bottom of tube B. Those are obligate anaerobes, which are killed by oxygen. Tube C shows heavy growth at the top of the tube and growth throughout the tube, a typical result with facultative anaerobes. Facultative anaerobes are organisms that thrive in the presence of oxygen but also grow in its absence by relying on fermentation or anaerobic respiration, if there is a suitable electron acceptor other than oxygen and the organism is able to perform anaerobic respiration. The aerotolerant anaerobes in tube D are indifferent to the presence of oxygen. They do not use oxygen because they usually have a fermentative metabolism, but they are not harmed by the presence of oxygen as obligate anaerobes are. Tube E on the right shows a “Goldilocks” culture. The oxygen level has to be just right for growth, not too much and not too little. These microaerophiles are bacteria that require a minimum level of oxygen for growth, about 1%–10%, well below the 21% found in the atmosphere.
Examples of obligate aerobes are Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis and Micrococcus luteus, a gram-positive bacterium that colonizes the skin. Neisseria meningitidis, the causative agent of severe bacterial meningitis, and N. gonorrhoeae, the causative agent of sexually transmitted gonorrhea, are also obligate aerobes.
Many obligate anaerobes are found in the environment where anaerobic conditions exist, such as in deep sediments of soil, still waters, and at the bottom of the deep ocean where there is no photosynthetic life. Anaerobic conditions also exist naturally in the intestinal tract of animals. Obligate anaerobes, mainly Bacteroidetes, represent a large fraction of the microbes in the human gut. Transient anaerobic conditions exist when tissues are not supplied with blood circulation; they die and become an ideal breeding ground for obligate anaerobes. Another type of obligate anaerobe encountered in the human body is the gram-positive, rod-shaped Clostridium spp. Their ability to form endospores allows them to survive in the presence of oxygen. One of the major causes of health-acquired infections is C. difficile, known as C. diff. Prolonged use of antibiotics for other infections increases the probability of a patient developing a secondary C. difficile infection. Antibiotic treatment disrupts the balance of microorganisms in the intestine and allows the colonization of the gut by C. difficile, causing a significant inflammation of the colon.
Other clostridia responsible for serious infections include C. tetani, the agent of tetanus, and C. perfringens, which causes gas gangrene. In both cases, the infection starts in necrotic tissue (dead tissue that is not supplied with oxygen by blood circulation). This is the reason that deep puncture wounds are associated with tetanus. When tissue death is accompanied by lack of circulation, gangrene is always a danger.
The study of obligate anaerobes requires special equipment. Obligate anaerobic bacteria must be grown under conditions devoid of oxygen. The most common approach is culture in an anaerobic jar. Anaerobic jars include chemical packs that remove oxygen and release carbon dioxide (CO2). An anaerobic chamber is an enclosed box from which all oxygen is removed. Gloves sealed to openings in the box allow handling of the cultures without exposing the culture to air.
Staphylococci and Enterobacteriaceae are examples of facultative anaerobes. Staphylococci are found on the skin and upper respiratory tract. Enterobacteriaceae are found primarily in the gut and upper respiratory tract but can sometimes spread to the urinary tract, where they are capable of causing infections. It is not unusual to see mixed bacterial infections in which the facultative anaerobes use up the oxygen, creating an environment for the obligate anaerobes to flourish.
Examples of aerotolerant anaerobes include lactobacilli and streptococci, both found in the oral microbiota. Campylobacter jejuni, which causes gastrointestinal infections, is an example of a microaerophile and is grown under low-oxygen conditions.
The optimum oxygen concentration, as the name implies, is the ideal concentration of oxygen for a particular microorganism. The lowest concentration of oxygen that allows growth is called the minimum permissive oxygen concentration. The highest tolerated concentration of oxygen is the maximum permissive oxygen concentration. The organism will not grow outside the range of oxygen levels found between the minimum and maximum permissive oxygen concentrations.
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