Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
Rediscovering Biology Logo
Online TextbookCase StudiesExpertsArchiveGlossarySearch
Online Textbook
Back to Unit Page
Unit Chapters
Proteins & Proteomics
Evolution & Phylogenetics
Microbial Diversity
Microbes as the First Organisms
The Diversity of Microbial Metabolism
Archaea and Bacteria
The Universal Tree of Life
Studying Unculturable Microbes with PCR
Microbes and the Carbon Cycle
Microbes and the Cycling of Nitrogen
Biofilms Formation and Bacterial Communication
Impact of Biofilms on Humans
Communication Between Bacteria and Eukaryotes
Microbes in Mines
Microbial Leaching of Ores
Emerging Infectious Diseases
Genetics of Development
Cell Biology & Cancer
Human Evolution
Biology of Sex & Gender
Genetically Modified Organisms
The Diversity of Microbial Metabolism

The diverse environments on Earth today present energy, and carbon and other nutrients in varying forms. They also vary with respect to temperature, acidity, and the availability of byproducts from other organisms. Microbes thrive in a vast array of these environments.

Microorganisms vary with regard to the sources of energy they use for assembling macromolecules and other cellular components from smaller molecules.
Figure 1. Terms describing varying energy and carbon sources
Phototrophs obtain their energy from light; chemotrophs use chemicals as energy sources. (Troph is derived from a Greek word meaning "to feed.") Many organisms use organic compounds as sources of energy; these are the chemoorganotrophs. In contrast, the chemolithoautotrophs use inorganic chemicals as energy sources.

Microorganisms also vary with respect to the source of carbon they use. Autotrophs are able to build organic molecules from carbon dioxide. Heterotrophs, the "other feeders," obtain their carbon from organic compounds - amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, and so on - of autotrophs.

These terms are often combined. So, a "photoautotroph" is an organism that, like plants, gets its energy from light and its carbon from CO2. Decomposers are often chemoheterotrophs; they may obtain energy and carbon from the same source.

So what metabolic classes might microbes found in a deep-sea hydrothermic vent fall within? The lack of sunlight makes them dependent on chemical energy; thus, they are chemotrophs. Carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean is their source of carbon; they are autotrophs. Organic material from decomposing phototrophs is not abundant, so these organisms rely on inorganic sources for energy. They may use H2 (present in magmatic gases), reduced sulfur compounds or methane as a source of energy. They are also thermophiles, growing optimally at temperatures above 45° C. Thermophilic chemolithoautotrophs serve as primary producers, the first organisms in food chains that include animals such as tube worms and giant clams.

Back Next


© Annenberg Foundation 2016. All rights reserved. Legal Policy