The Gammaproteobacteria


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(a) Aliivibrio fischeri is a bioluminescent bacterium. (b) A. fischeri colonizes and lives in a mutualistic relationship with the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes). (credit a: modification of work by American Society for Microbiology; credit b: modification of work by Margaret McFall-Ngai)

OpenStax Microbiology

The most diverse class of gram-negative bacteria is Gammaproteobacteria, and it includes a number of human pathogens. For example, a large and diverse family, Pseudomonaceae, includes the genus Pseudomonas. Within this genus is the species P. aeruginosa, a pathogen responsible for diverse infections in various regions of the body. P. aeruginosa is a strictly aerobic, nonfermenting, highly motile bacterium. It often infects wounds and burns, can be the cause of chronic urinary tract infections, and can be an important cause of respiratory infections in patients with cystic fibrosis or patients on mechanical ventilators. Infections by P. aeruginosa are often difficult to treat because the bacterium is resistant to many antibiotics and has a remarkable ability to form biofilms. Other representatives of Pseudomonas include the fluorescent (glowing) bacterium P. fluorescens and the soil bacteria P. putida, which is known for its ability to degrade xenobiotics (substances not naturally produced or found in living organisms).

The Pasteurellaceae also includes several clinically relevant genera and species. This family includes several bacteria that are human and/or animal pathogens. For example, Pasteurella haemolytica causes severe pneumonia in sheep and goats. P. multocida is a species that can be transmitted from animals to humans through bites, causing infections of the skin and deeper tissues. The genus Haemophilus contains two human pathogens, H. influenzae and H. ducreyi. Despite its name, H. influenzae does not cause influenza (which is a viral disease). H. influenzae can cause both upper and lower respiratory tract infections, including sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infections, and pneumonia. Before the development of effective vaccination, strains of H. influenzae were a leading cause of more invasive diseases, like meningitis in children. H. ducreyi causes the STI known as chancroid.

The order Vibrionales includes the human pathogen Vibrio cholerae. This comma-shaped aquatic bacterium thrives in highly alkaline environments like shallow lagoons and sea ports. A toxin produced by V. cholerae causes hypersecretion of electrolytes and water in the large intestine, leading to profuse watery diarrhea and dehydration. V. parahaemolyticus is also a cause of gastrointestinal disease in humans, whereas V. vulnificus causes serious and potentially life-threatening cellulitis (infection of the skin and deeper tissues) and blood-borne infections. Another representative of Vibrionales, Aliivibrio fischeri, engages in a symbiotic relationship with squid. The squid provides nutrients for the bacteria to grow and the bacteria produce bioluminescence that protects the squid from predators.

The genus Legionella also belongs to the Gammaproteobacteria. L. pneumophila, the pathogen responsible for Legionnaires disease, is an aquatic bacterium that tends to inhabit pools of warm water, such as those found in the tanks of air conditioning units in large buildings. Because the bacteria can spread in aerosols, outbreaks of Legionnaires disease often affect residents of a building in which the water has become contaminated with Legionella. In fact, these bacteria derive their name from the first known outbreak of Legionnaires disease, which occurred in a hotel hosting an American Legion veterans’ association convention in Philadelphia in 1976.

(a) Legionella pneumophila, the causative agent of Legionnaires disease, thrives in warm water. (b) Outbreaks of Legionnaires disease often originate in the air conditioning units of large buildings when water in or near the system becomes contaminated with L. pneumophila. (credit a: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Enterobacteriaceae is a large family of enteric (intestinal) bacteria belonging to the Gammaproteobacteria. They are facultative anaerobes and are able to ferment carbohydrates. Within this family, microbiologists recognize two distinct categories. The first category is called the coliforms, after its prototypical bacterium species, Escherichia coli. Coliforms are able to ferment lactose completely (i.e., with the production of acid and gas). The second category, noncoliforms, either cannot ferment lactose or can only ferment it incompletely (producing either acid or gas, but not both). The noncoliforms include some notable human pathogens, such as Salmonella spp., Shigella spp., and Yersinia pestis.

E. coli has been perhaps the most studied bacterium since it was first described in 1886 by Theodor Escherich (1857–1911). Many strains of E. coli are in mutualistic relationships with humans. However, some strains produce a potentially deadly toxin called Shiga toxin. Shiga toxin is one of the most potent bacterial toxins identified. Upon entering target cells, Shiga toxin interacts with ribosomes, stopping protein synthesis. Lack of protein synthesis leads to cellular death and hemorrhagic colitis, characterized by inflammation of intestinal tract and bloody diarrhea. In the most severe cases, patients can develop a deadly hemolytic uremic syndrome. Other E. coli strains may cause traveler’s diarrhea, a less severe but very widespread disease.

The genus Salmonella, which belongs to the noncoliform group of Enterobacteriaceae, is interesting in that there is still no consensus about how many species it includes. Scientists have reclassified many of the groups they once thought to be species as serotypes (also called serovars), which are strains or variations of the same species of bacteria. Their classification is based on patterns of reactivity by animal antisera against molecules on the surface of the bacterial cells. A number of serotypes of Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, characterized by inflammation of the small and the large intestine, accompanied by fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. The species S. enterobacterica (serovar typhi) causes typhoid fever, with symptoms including fever, abdominal pain, and skin rashes.

Salmonella typhi is the causative agent of typhoid fever. (credit: 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: