The Phototrophic Bacteria

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Purple and green sulfur bacteria use bacteriochlorophylls to perform photosynthesis.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

The phototrophic bacteria are a large and diverse category of bacteria that do not represent a taxon but, rather, a group of bacteria that use sunlight as their primary source of energy. This group contains both Proteobacteria and nonproteobacteria. They use solar energy to synthesize ATP through photosynthesis. When they produce oxygen, they perform oxygenic photosynthesis. When they do not produce oxygen, they perform anoxygenic photosynthesis. With the exception of some cyanobacteria, the majority of phototrophic bacteria perform anoxygenic photosynthesis.

One large group of phototrophic bacteria includes the purple or green bacteria that perform photosynthesis with the help of bacteriochlorophylls, which are green, purple, or blue pigments similar to chlorophyll in plants. Some of these bacteria have a varying amount of red or orange pigments called carotenoids. Their color varies from orange to red to purple to green, and they are able to absorb light of various wavelengths. Traditionally, these bacteria are classified into sulfur and nonsulfur bacteria; they are further differentiated by color.

The sulfur bacteria perform anoxygenic photosynthesis, using sulfites as electron donors and releasing free elemental sulfur. Nonsulfur bacteria use organic substrates, such as succinate and malate, as donors of electrons.

The purple sulfur bacteria oxidize hydrogen sulfide into elemental sulfur and sulfuric acid and get their purple color from the pigments bacteriochlorophylls and carotenoids. Bacteria of the genus Chromatium are purple sulfur Gammaproteobacteria. These microorganisms are strict anaerobes and live in water. They use carbon dioxide as their only source of carbon, but their survival and growth are possible only in the presence of sulfites, which they use as electron donors. Chromatium has been used as a model for studies of bacterial photosynthesis since the 1950s.

The green sulfur bacteria use sulfide for oxidation and produce large amounts of green bacteriochlorophyll. The genus Chlorobium is a green sulfur bacterium that is implicated in climate change because it produces methane, a greenhouse gas. These bacteria use at least four types of chlorophyll for photosynthesis. The most prevalent of these, bacteriochlorophyll, is stored in special vesicle-like organelles called chlorosomes.

Purple nonsulfur bacteria are similar to purple sulfur bacteria, except that they use hydrogen rather than hydrogen sulfide for oxidation. Among the purple nonsulfur bacteria is the genus Rhodospirillum. These microorganisms are facultative anaerobes, which are actually pink rather than purple, and can metabolize (“fix”) nitrogen. They may be valuable in the field of biotechnology because of their potential ability to produce biological plastic and hydrogen fuel.

The green nonsulfur bacteria are similar to green sulfur bacteria but they use substrates other than sulfides for oxidation. Chloroflexus is an example of a green nonsulfur bacterium. It often has an orange color when it grows in the dark, but it becomes green when it grows in sunlight. It stores bacteriochlorophyll in chlorosomes, similar to Chlorobium, and performs anoxygenic photosynthesis, using organic sulfites (low concentrations) or molecular hydrogen as electron donors, so it can survive in the dark if oxygen is available. Chloroflexus does not have flagella but can glide, like Cytophaga. It grows at a wide range of temperatures, from 35 °C to 70 °C, thus can be thermophilic.

Another large, diverse group of phototrophic bacteria compose the phylum Cyanobacteria; they get their bluegreen color from the chlorophyll contained in their cells. Species of this group perform oxygenic photosynthesis, producing megatons of gaseous oxygen. Scientists hypothesize that cyanobacteria played a critical role in the change of our planet’s anoxic atmosphere 1–2 billion years ago to the oxygen-rich environment we have today.

(a) Microcystis aeruginosa is a type of cyanobacteria commonly found in freshwater environments. (b) In warm temperatures, M. aeruginosa and other cyanobacteria can multiply rapidly and produce neurotoxins, resulting in blooms that are harmful to fish and other aquatic animals. (credit a: modification of work by Dr. Barry H. Rosen/U.S. Geological Survey; credit b: modification of work by NOAA)

Cyanobacteria have other remarkable properties. Amazingly adaptable, they thrive in many habitats, including marine and freshwater environments, soil, and even rocks. They can live at a wide range of temperatures, even in the extreme temperatures of the Antarctic. They can live as unicellular organisms or in colonies, and they can be filamentous, forming sheaths or biofilms. Many of them fix nitrogen, converting molecular nitrogen into nitrites and nitrates that other bacteria, plants, and animals can use. The reactions of nitrogen fixation occur in specialized cells called heterocysts.

Photosynthesis in Cyanobacteria is oxygenic, using the same type of chlorophyll a found in plants and algae as the primary photosynthetic pigment. Cyanobacteria also use phycocyanin and cyanophycin, two secondary photosynthetic pigments that give them their characteristic blue color. They are located in special organelles called phycobilisomes and in folds of the cellular membrane called thylakoids, which are remarkably similar to the photosynthetic apparatus of plants. Scientists hypothesize that plants originated from endosymbiosis of ancestral eukaryotic cells and ancestral photosynthetic bacteria. Cyanobacteria are also an interesting object of research in biochemistry, with studies investigating their potential as biosorbents and products of human nutrition.

Unfortunately, cyanobacteria can sometimes have a negative impact on human health. Genera such as Microcystis can form harmful cyanobacterial blooms, forming dense mats on bodies of water and producing large quantities of toxins that can harm wildlife and humans. These toxins have been implicated in tumors of the liver and diseases of the nervous system in animals and humans.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


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