Prokaryotic Metabolism

Needs of Prokaryotes

The diverse environments and ecosystems on Earth have a wide range of conditions in terms of temperature, available nutrients, acidity, salinity, oxygen availability, and energy sources. Prokaryotes are very well equipped to make their living out of a vast array of nutrients and environmental conditions. To live, prokaryotes need a source of energy, a source of carbon, and some additional nutrients.

Macronutrients

Cells are essentially a well-organized assemblage of macromolecules and water. Recall that macromolecules are produced by the polymerization of smaller units called monomers. For cells to build all of the molecules required to sustain life, they need certain substances, collectively called nutrients. When prokaryotes grow in nature, they must obtain their nutrients from the environment. Nutrients that are required in large amounts are called macronutrients, whereas those required in smaller or trace amounts are called micronutrients. Just a handful of elements are considered macronutrients—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. (A mnemonic for remembering these elements is the acronym CHONPS.)

Why are these macronutrients needed in large amounts? They are the components of organic compounds in cells, including water. Carbon is the major element in all macromolecules: carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and many other compounds. Carbon accounts for about 50 percent of the composition of the cell. In contrast, nitrogen represents only 12 percent of the total dry weight of a typical cell. Nitrogen is a component of proteins, nucleic acids, and other cell constituents. Most of the nitrogen available in nature is either atmospheric nitrogen (N2) or another inorganic form. Diatomic (N2) nitrogen, however, can be converted into an organic form only by certain microorganisms, called nitrogen-fixing organisms. Both hydrogen and oxygen are part of many organic compounds and of water. Phosphorus is required by all organisms for the synthesis of nucleotides and phospholipids. Sulfur is part of the structure of some amino acids such as cysteine and methionine, and is also present in several vitamins and coenzymes. Other important macronutrients are potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), and sodium (Na). Although these elements are required in smaller amounts, they are very important for the structure and function of the prokaryotic cell.

Micronutrients

In addition to these macronutrients, prokaryotes require various metallic elements in small amounts. These are referred to as micronutrients or trace elements. For example, iron is necessary for the function of the cytochromes involved in electron-transport reactions. Some prokaryotes require other elements—such as boron (B), chromium (Cr), and manganese (Mn)—primarily as enzyme cofactors.

The Ways in Which Prokaryotes Obtain Energy

Prokaryotes are classified both by the way they obtain energy, and by the carbon source they use for producing organic molecules. These categories are summarized in Table. Prokaryotes can use different sources of energy to generate the ATP needed for biosynthesis and other cellular activities. Phototrophs (or phototrophic organisms) obtain their energy from sunlight. Phototrophs trap the energy of light using chlorophylls, or in a few cases, bacterial rhodopsin. (Rhodopsin-using phototrophs, oddly, are phototrophic, but not photosynthetic, since they do not fix carbon.) Chemotrophs (or chemosynthetic organisms) obtain their energy from chemical compounds. Chemotrophs that can use organic compounds as energy sources are called chemoorganotrophs. Those that can use inorganic compounds, like sulfur or iron compounds, as energy sources are called chemolithotrophs.

Energy-producing pathways may be either aerobic, using oxygen as the terminal electron acceptor, or anaerobic, using either simple inorganic compounds or organic molecules as the terminal electron acceptor. Since prokaryotes lived on Earth for nearly a billion years before photosynthesis produced significant amounts of oxygen for aerobic respiration, many species of both Bacteria and Archaea are anaerobic and their metabolic activities are important in the carbon and nitrogen cycles discussed below.

The Ways in Which Prokaryotes Obtain Carbon

Prokaryotes not only can use different sources of energy, but also different sources of carbon compounds. Autotrophic prokaryotes synthesize organic molecules from carbon dioxide. In contrast, heterotrophic prokaryotes obtain carbon from organic compounds. To make the picture more complex, the terms that describe how prokaryotes obtain energy and carbon can be combined. Thus, photoautotrophs use energy from sunlight, and carbon from carbon dioxide and water, whereas chemoheterotrophs obtain both energy and carbon from an organic chemical source. Chemolithoautotrophs obtain their energy from inorganic compounds, and they build their complex molecules from carbon dioxide. Finally, prokaryotes that get their energy from light, but their carbon from organic compounds, are photoheterotrophs. The table below (Table) summarizes carbon and energy sources in prokaryotes.

Carbon and Energy Sources in Prokaryotes
Energy Sources Carbon Sources
Light Chemicals Carbon dioxide Organic compounds
Phototrophs Chemotrophs Autotrophs Heterotrophs
Organic chemicals Inorganic chemicals
Chemo-organotrophs Chemolithotrophs
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