The Cell Wall of Prokaryotes


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The left illustration shows the cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria. The cell wall is a thick layer of peptidoglycan that exists outside the plasma membrane. A long, thin molecule called lipoteichoic acid anchors the cell wall to the cell membrane. The right illustration shows Gram-negative bacteria. In Gram-negative bacteria, a thin peptidoglycan cell wall is sandwiched between an outer and an inner plasma membrane. The space between the two membranes is called the periplasmic space. Lipoproteins anchor the cell wall to the outer membrane. Lipopolysaccharides protrude from the outer membrane. Porins are proteins in the outer membrane that allow entry of substances.
Cell walls in Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. Bacteria are divided into two major groups: Gram positive and Gram negative. Both groups have a cell wall composed of peptidoglycan: in Gram-positive bacteria, the wall is thick, whereas in Gram-negative bacteria, the wall is thin. In Gram-negative bacteria, the cell wall is surrounded by an outer membrane that contains lipopolysaccharides and lipoproteins. Porins are proteins in this cell membrane that allow substances to pass through the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria. In Gram-positive bacteria, lipoteichoic acid anchors the cell wall to the cell membrane. (credit: modification of work by “Franciscosp2″/Wikimedia Commons)

OpenStax Biology 2e

The cytoplasm of prokaryotic cells has a high concentration of dissolved solutes. Therefore, the osmotic pressure within the cell is relatively high. The cell wall is a protective layer that surrounds some cells and gives them shape and rigidity. It is located outside the cell membrane and prevents osmotic lysis (bursting due to increasing volume). The chemical composition of the cell wall varies between Archaea and Bacteria, and also varies between bacterial species.

Bacterial cell walls contain peptidoglycan, composed of polysaccharide chains that are cross-linked by unusual peptides containing both L- and D-amino acids including D-glutamic acid and D-alanine. (Proteins normally have only L-amino acids; as a consequence, many of our antibiotics work by mimicking D-amino acids and therefore have specific effects on bacterial cell-wall development.) There are more than 100 different forms of peptidoglycan. S-layer (surface layer) proteins are also present on the outside of cell walls of both Archaea and Bacteria.

Bacteria are divided into two major groups: Gram positive and Gram negative, based on their reaction to Gram staining. Note that all Gram-positive bacteria belong to one phylum; bacteria in the other phyla (Proteobacteria, Chlamydias, Spirochetes, Cyanobacteria, and others) are Gram-negative. The Gram staining method is named after its inventor, Danish scientist Hans Christian Gram (1853–1938). The different bacterial responses to the staining procedure are ultimately due to cell wall structure. Gram-positive organisms typically lack the outer membrane found in Gram-negative organisms. Up to 90 percent of the cell-wall in Gram-positive bacteria is composed of peptidoglycan, and most of the rest is composed of acidic substances called teichoic acids. Teichoic acids may be covalently linked to lipids in the plasma membrane to form lipoteichoic acids. Lipoteichoic acids anchor the cell wall to the cell membrane. Gram-negative bacteria have a relatively thin cell wall composed of a few layers of peptidoglycan (only 10 percent of the total cell wall), surrounded by an outer envelope containing lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and lipoproteins. This outer envelope is sometimes referred to as a second lipid bilayer. The chemistry of this outer envelope is very different, however, from that of the typical lipid bilayer that forms plasma membranes.

Archaean cell walls do not have peptidoglycan. There are four different types of archaean cell walls. One type is composed of pseudopeptidoglycan, which is similar to peptidoglycan in morphology but contains different sugars in the polysaccharide chain. The other three types of cell walls are composed of polysaccharides, glycoproteins, or pure protein. Note that features related to DNA replication, transcription and translation in Archaea are similar to those seen in eukaryotes.

Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: