Bacterial Spores: Sporulation & Germination
Bacterial spores of the genera Bacillus and Clostridium comprise differentiated cell types that are formed in response to nutrient limitation via the process of sporulation, and which serve as environmental survival structures. They represent the most durable biological cells found in the natural environment in terms of their resistance to heat, radiation, pressure, and exposure to various chemical and enzymatic agents. Additionally, spores show remarkable longevity, and they are able to persist in a viable but metabolically dormant state in the environment for perhaps several millenia.
Despite these properties of extreme dormancy and environmental resistance, which stem from the spore's unique multi-layered structure and relatively dehydrated status, spores retain the ability to rapidly “return to life” via the process of germination, which is activated upon exposure to specific chemical signals (termed germinants).
Once triggered, the germination process is irreversible, and comprises a series of temporally defined degradative reactions that are essentially biophysical in nature; germination is an energetically exergonic process and is initiated in the apparent absence of ATP and/or de novo protein synthesis. Upon germination, which may only take a few minutes for individual spores, the spore loses its properties of resistance, metabolism is re-initiated and the process of vegetative out-growth, which results ultimately in the emergence of a new vegetative cell, commences.
|Phase contrast microscopy images of dormant and germinated Bacillus megaterium spores|
Spore germination is therefore a crucial event in the lifecycle of spore forming bacteria, since in virtually all cases the deleterious properties associated with several species of Bacilli and Clostridia (encompassing various human diseases [anthrax, tetanus], food-borne toxigenesis, food spoilage, nosocomial infections etc.) are manifested only during the vegetative growth phase.
Therefore, in addition to being a fundamental topic of long-standing biological interest, increased understanding of the spore germination process is also of major interest in an applied sense, since insights may lead to improved capabilities with spore-associated problems in the public health, food safety/processing and environmental decontamination sectors.