Bacteria, Classification (World of Forensic Science)
The shapes of bacterial cells, often of keen interest to forensic investigators, are classified as spherical (coccus), rodlike (bacillus), spiral (spirochete), helical (spirilla), and comma-shaped (vibrio) cells. Many bacilli and vibrio bacteria have whiplike appendages (called flagella) protruding from the cell surface. Flagella are composed of tight, helical rotors made of chains of globular protein called flagellin, and act as tiny propellers, making the bacteria very mobile. On the surface of some bacteria are short, hairlike, proteinaceous projections that may arise at the ends of the cell or over the entire surface. These projections, called fimbriae, facilitate bacteria adherence to surfaces.
Other proteinaceous projections, called pili, occur singly or in pairs, and join pairs of bacteria together, facilitating transfer of DNA between them.
Oxygen may or may not be a requirement for a particular species of bacteria, depending on the type of metabolism used to extract energy from food (aerobic or anaerobic). Obligate aerobes must have oxygen in order to live. Facultative aerobes can also exist in the absence of oxygen by using fermentation or anaerobic respiration. Anaerobic respiration and fermentation occur in the absence of oxygen, and produce substantially less ATP than aerobic respiration.
During periods of harsh environmental conditions some bacteria can produce within themselves a dehydrated, thick-walled endospore. These endospores can survive extreme temperatures, dryness, and exposure to many toxic chemicals and to radiation. Endospores can remain dormant for long periods (hundreds of years in some cases) before being reactivated by the return of favorable conditions.
Pathogens are disease-causing bacteria that release toxins or poisons that interfere with some function of the host's body.
An understanding of the basic classification of bacteria found at crime scenes and taken from bodies at autopsy is critical to forensic investigators (including forensic epidemiologists) attempting to identify bacteria. The identification schemes of Bergey's Manual are based on morphology (e.g., coccus, bacillus), staining (gram-positive or negative), cell wall composition (e.g., presence or absence of peptidoglycan), oxygen requirements (e.g., aerobic, facultatively anaerobic) and biochemical tests (e.g., which sugars are aerobically metabolized or fermented).
Another important identification technique is based on the principles of antigenicityhe ability to stimulate the formation of antibodies by the immune system. Commercially available solutions of antibodies against specific bacteria (antisera) are used to identify unknown organisms in a procedure called a slide agglutination test. A sample of unknown bacteria in a drop of saline is mixed with antisera that has been raised against a known species of bacteria. If the antisera causes the unknown bacteria to clump (agglutinate), then the test positively identifies the bacteria as being identical to that against which the antisera was raised. The test can also be used to distinguish between strains of slightly different bacteria belonging to the same species.
SEE ALSO Anthrax; Bacterial biology; Bacteria, growth and reproduction; Bacterial resistance and response to antibacterial agents; Biological weapons, genetic identification; Biosensor technologies; Bubonic plague; Decontamination methods.