7.2 Oxygen Requirements for Microbial Growth

Learning Objectives

  • Interpret visual data demonstrating minimum, optimum, and maximum oxygen or carbon dioxide requirements for growth
  • Identify and describe different categories of microbes with requirements for growth with or without oxygen: obligate aerobe, obligate anaerobe, facultative anaerobe, aerotolerant anaerobe, microaerophile, and capnophile

Ask most people “What are the major requirements for life?” and the answers are likely to include water and oxygen. Few would argue about the need for water, but what about oxygen? Can there be life without oxygen?

The answer is that molecular oxygen (O2) is not always needed. The earliest signs of life are dated to a period when conditions on earth were highly reducing and free oxygen gas was essentially nonexistent. Only after cyanobacteria started releasing oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis and the capacity of iron in the oceans for taking up oxygen was exhausted did oxygen levels increase in the atmosphere. This event, often referred to as the Great Oxygenation Event or the Oxygen Revolution, caused a massive extinction. Most organisms could not survive the powerful oxidative properties of reactive oxygen species (ROS), highly unstable ions and molecules derived from partial reduction of oxygen that can damage virtually any macromolecule or structure with which they come in contact. Singlet oxygen (O2), superoxide (O 2−), peroxides (H2O2), hydroxyl radical (OH), and hypochlorite ion (OCl), the active ingredient of household bleach, are all examples of ROS. The organisms that were able to detoxify reactive oxygen species harnessed the high electronegativity of oxygen to produce free energy for their metabolism and thrived in the new environment.

Oxygen Requirements of Microorganisms

Many ecosystems are still free of molecular oxygen. Some are found in extreme locations, such as deep in the ocean or in earth’s crust; others are part of our everyday landscape, such as marshes, bogs, and sewers. Within the bodies of humans and other animals, regions with little or no oxygen provide an anaerobic environment for microorganisms. (Figure 7.9).

Anaerobic environments are still common on earth. They include environments like (a) a bog where undisturbed dense sediments are virtually devoid of oxygen, and (b) the rumen (the first compartment of a cow’s stomach), which provides an oxygen-free incubator for methanogens and other obligate anaerobic bacteria.
Figure 7.9 Anaerobic environments are still common on earth. They include environments like (a) a bog where undisturbed dense sediments are virtually devoid of oxygen, and (b) the rumen (the first compartment of a cow’s stomach), which provides an oxygen-free incubator for methanogens and other obligate anaerobic bacteria. (credit a: modification of work by National Park Service; credit b: modification of work by US Department of Agriculture)

We can easily observe different requirements for molecular oxygen by growing bacteria in thioglycolate tube cultures. A test-tube culture starts with autoclaved thioglycolate medium containing a low percentage of agar to allow motile bacteria to move throughout the medium. Thioglycolate has strong reducing properties and autoclaving flushes out most of the oxygen. The tubes are inoculated with the bacterial cultures to be tested and incubated at an appropriate temperature. Over time, oxygen slowly diffuses throughout the thioglycolate tube culture from the top. Bacterial density increases in the area where oxygen concentration is best suited for the growth of that particular organism.

The growth of bacteria with varying oxygen requirements in thioglycolate tubes is illustrated in Figure 7.10. In tube A, all the growth is seen at the top of the tube. The bacteria are obligate (strict) aerobes that cannot grow without an abundant supply of oxygen. Tube B looks like the opposite of tube A. Bacteria grow at the bottom of tube B. Those are obligate anaerobes, which are killed by oxygen. Tube C shows heavy growth at the top of the tube and growth throughout the tube, a typical result with facultative anaerobes. Facultative anaerobes are organisms that thrive in the presence of oxygen but also grow in its absence by relying on fermentation or anaerobic respiration, if there is a suitable electron acceptor other than oxygen and the organism is able to perform anaerobic respiration. The aerotolerant anaerobes in tube D are indifferent to the presence of oxygen. They do not use oxygen because they usually have a fermentative metabolism, but they are not harmed by the presence of oxygen as obligate anaerobes are. Tube E on the right shows a “Goldilocks” culture. The oxygen level has to be just right for growth, not too much and not too little. These microaerophiles are bacteria that require a minimum level of oxygen for growth, about 1%–10%, well below the 21% found in the atmosphere.

Diagram of bacterial cell distribution in thioglycolate tubes.
Figure 7.10 Diagram of bacterial cell distribution in thioglycolate tubes.
  • Would you expect the oldest bacterial lineages to be aerobic or anaerobic?
  • Which bacteria grow at the top of a thioglycolate tube, and which grow at the bottom of the tube?

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