What are the Characteristics of Bacteria?

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With the number of reports in the media about disease outbreaks, it’s no wonder people are so afraid of germs. Many germs can make you quite ill, and some cause diseases that can lead to death. Washing your hands regularly can help you avoid most germs, but some germs are transmitted in other ways, such as through the air, and are difficult to avoid. It might be easier to avoid germs and sickness with a better understanding of what a germ is—and what it’s not. Start with understanding the characteristics of bacteria.

What’s a Germ?

The word germ is often used to describe both bacteria and viruses; however, they are not the same, even though both can lead to health problems. Bacteria are living organisms, whereas viruses are known non-living particles, despite the fact they can replicate, according to biology e-instructor Doc Miller via Vimeo1. Like bacteria, though, viruses can cause serious illness. Avoiding any germ that can cause disease, if possible, is the best course of action for staying healthy. Knowing the basic characteristics of bacteria can help to identify different harmful bacteria and how to avoid coming into contact with them.

Commonalities and Basics

Bacteria have a cell wall, cell membrane and cytoplasm, and DNA is stored in the nucloid region. Bacteria require a food source for energy, and they have the ability to reproduce. Although most people try to avoid germs, not all bacteria are bad. Many types of bacteria are not only beneficial but also necessary—even certain bacteria with a bad reputation, according to Miller1.

For example, E. coli normally lives in the intestines of humans and animals, and it has an important role in the digestion process. As long as E. coli stays in its proper environment, all is well. E. coli can cause serious health problems, though, if it gets into the blood of an individual. E. coli infected many people in 2006 when it was found in fresh spinach sold at grocers, according to the Kidshealth2 website.

It has also gotten into hamburger meat, on numerous occasions, via infected cattle, which is why it’s a good idea to make sure your hamburgers and other beef dishes are cooked well-done when eating at home or at restaurants, says FamilyDoctor.org3.

Nevertheless, some bacteria are good for you, such as the bacteria in yogurt—lactic acid bacteria. Bacteria are also used to age expensive, tasty cheeses.

Living Organism Types

People, animals, fungi, plants and protists are eukaryotes, which are single-celled or multi-celled organisms and have a membrane-bound nucleus. Most bacteria are prokaryotes, however, according to Miller1. This means they are single-celled organisms without a membrane-bound nucleus.


Bacilli are rod-shaped bacteria. Cocci are sphere-shaped bacteria and include streptococci, which are chains of cocci bacteria, and staphylococci, which are clusters of cocci bacteria1. You might recognize the “strep” part of streptocci and think of strep throat, or the “staph” part of straphylococci and think of staph infections. Cocci bacteria cause these common infections. Spirilla are spiral-shaped bacteria. Bacilli and spirilla may have tail-like structures that allow them to swim.


Bacteria categories include proteobacteria, cyanobacteria and spirocytes. Proteobacteria, such as botulinum and anthrax, function by converting nitrogen gas into a usable form, according to Miller1. Believe it or not, bacteria such as these have a purpose in the right environment. Cyanobacteria, sometimes incorrectly referred to as blue/green algae, rely on photsynthesis and are most often found in water and related environments1. Cyanobacteria are essential for the environment because they produce oxygen. Bacteria people often try to avoid are spirocytes, such as chlamydia, syphilis and T. pallidum. These bacteria cause sexually transmitted diseases that can lead to serious illness.

World Community

With advances in technology, communications and transportation, the world is a much smaller community now than ever before. These changes have impacted the way people interact, as well as how often they intermingle. Within such a world community, bacteria and viruses spread more easily and rampantly. Knowledge is power, though, and understanding the characteristics of bacteria is one way to better maneuver in a highly interconnected global community.


1. Vimeo; 2-5-1 Bacteria & Viruses; Doc Miller


2. KidsHealth: E. Coli


3. FamiilyDoctor.org: E. coli Infection


4. New York Times: They Do the Work, You Reap the Yogurt


5. Science Encyclopedia: Bacteria – Characteristics of Bacteria


6. Health Mart Pharmacy: Infectious Diseases in the 21st Century