The Alphaproteobacteria


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Rickettsias require special staining methods to see them under a microscope. Here, R. rickettsii, which causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever, is shown infecting the cells of a tick. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

The first class of Proteobacteria is the Alphaproteobacteria. The unifying characteristic of this class is that they are oligotrophs, organisms capable of living in low-nutrient environments such as deep oceanic sediments, glacial ice, or deep undersurface soil.

Among the Alphaproteobacteria are two taxa, chlamydias and rickettsias, that are obligate intracellular pathogens, meaning that part of their life cycle must occur inside other cells called host cells. When not growing inside a host cell, Chlamydia and Rickettsia are metabolically inactive outside of the host cell. They cannot synthesize their own adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and, therefore, rely on cells for their energy needs.

Rickettsia spp. include a number of serious human pathogens. For example, R. rickettsii causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a life-threatening form of meningoencephalitis (inflammation of the membranes that wrap the brain). R. rickettsii infects ticks and can be transmitted to humans via a bite from an infected tick.

Another species of Rickettsia, R. prowazekii, is spread by lice. It causes epidemic typhus, a severe infectious disease common during warfare and mass migrations of people. R. prowazekii infects human endothelium cells, causing inflammation of the inner lining of blood vessels, high fever, abdominal pain, and sometimes delirium. A relative, R. typhi, causes a less severe disease known as murine or endemic typhus, which is still observed in the southwestern United States during warm seasons.

Chlamydia is another taxon of the Alphaproteobacteria. Members of this genus are gram-negative, obligate intracellular pathogens that are extremely resistant to the cellular defenses, giving them the ability to spread from host to host rapidly via elementary bodies. The metabolically and reproductively inactive elementary bodies are the endospore-like form of intracellular bacteria that enter an epithelial cell, where they become active.

C. trachomatis is a human pathogen that causes trachoma, a disease of the eyes, often leading to blindness. C. trachomatis also causes the sexually transmitted disease lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV). This disease is often mildly symptomatic, manifesting as regional lymph node swelling, or it may be asymptomatic, but it is extremely contagious and is common on college campuses.

Chlamydia begins infection of a host when the metabolically inactive elementary bodies enter an epithelial cell. Once inside the host cell, the elementary bodies turn into active reticulate bodies. The reticulate bodies multiply and release more elementary bodies when the cell dies after the Chlamydia uses all of the host cell’s ATP. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
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: