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A heterogeneous collection of bacteria that form branching filaments. The actinomycetes encompass two different groups of filamentous bacteria: the actinomycetes per se and the nocardia/streptomycete complex. Historically, the actinomycetes were called the ray fungi and were thought to be related to the true fungi, such as bread molds, because they formed mats (mycelia) of branching filaments (hyphae). However, unlike the true fungi, the actinomycetes have thin hyphae (0.5–1.5 micrometers in diameter) with genetic material coiled inside as free DNA. The cell wall of the hyphae is made up of a cross-linked polymer containing short chains of amino acids and long chains of amino sugars. In general, actinomycetes do not have membrane-bound cell organelles. Actinomycetes are susceptible to a wide range of antibiotics that are used to treat bacterial diseases, such as penicillin and tetracycline. See Amino sugar, Antibiotic
Members of the genus Actinomyces are most often found in the mouth and gastrointestinal tract of humans and other animals. Actinomyces do not require oxygen for growth and are sometimes referred to as anaerobic bacteria. It is actually the requirement for elevated levels of carbon dioxide rather than the negative effect of oxygen that characterizes Actinomyces. When displaced from their normal sites within the mouth or gastrointestinal tract, Actinomyces may cause diseases in humans, such as lung abscesses, appendicitis, and lumpy jaw, which is also seen in cattle. Serious ulcers of the cornea of the eye have been caused by contact lens contaminated with saliva containing Actinomyces.
The nocardia/streptomycete complex constitutes a continuous spectrum of organisms from those most like true bacteria to those that are superficially most like fungi. The nocardiae represent the transition, having members that resemble the bacteria that cause diphtheria (Corynebacterium) and tuberculosis (Mycobacterium). Members of the genus Nocardia require oxygen for growth, are found in soil and water, and have the ability to use a wide range of organic material as a source of energy. A few species of Nocardia cause disease in humans. Nocardiae inhaled from the soil may cause a disease of the lungs similar to tuberculosis. A few species produce clinically useful antibiotics. The streptomycetes have long branching filaments and two types of mycelia. The cell walls are typical bacterial cell walls and do not contain the fatty acids found in nocardiae and mycobacteria. Streptomycetes require oxygen for growth, are found in soil and water, and have the ability to utilize a wide range of organic materials as nutrients. The streptomycetes are particularly important in degradation of dead plant materials in soil; the aroma of fresh soil and newly dug potatoes is actually due to streptomycetes. Streptomycetes do not produce disease in humans or animals and are best known for producing many clinically useful antibiotics, including streptomycin, tetracycline, and cephalosporin. There are many other genera of actinomycetes, defined on the bases of morphology, chemical composition of cell walls, or unique roles in nature. See Bacteria, Diphtheria, Medical bacteriology, Tuberculosis
(Streptomycetes, ray fungi), a group of microorganisms combining the traits of bacteria and fungi. The actinomycetes are characterized by a filamentous or rod-and-coccus structure and the presence of lateral protuberances. They are all gram-positive.
The actinomycetes include Actinomyces itself, which forms spores on sporophores. The spores form in long chains by segmentation or fragmentation of the sporophores. There are also the Proactinomyces, with a well-developed mycelium which breaks up into rods and cocci; the Mycobacterium, with a typical branching of the mycelium in the form of rod-like cells which multiply by division (by segmentation); the Mycococcus, in the form of round, irregular cells (often with lateral protuberances, or buds), which multiply by segmentation and gemmation; and the Micromonospora, a group consisting of four genera (Micromonospora, Microbispora, Micropolyspora, and Actinobifida). There are also forms with complex fruit-bearing organs, called sporangia, with spores inside (Streptosporangium, Actinosporangium, and others), and forms which generate spores with cilia (Actino-planes, Dermatophilus, and others).
Actinomycetes are widely found in soil, in the silt of bodies of water, in the air, and in plant remains. Among the actinomycetes there are also pathogenic forms which cause actinomycosis, tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), and diphtheria (Corynebacterium diphtheriae). Certain types of mycobacteria are injurious to plants, while the Proactinomyces forms nodules on the roots of alder trees and other plants, contributing to their growth.
A majority of the actinomycetes feed on protein or nonprotein organic matter. Among the actinomycetes there are also autotrophs, as well as forms for which waxes, resins, paraffins, and petroleum can be used as the source of carbon. For them, nitrates, ammonium salts, urea, amino acids, and other substances can be used as the source of nitrogen. Actinomycetes live under the most diverse conditions, aerobic and anaerobic, at temperatures of 5–7°C and 45–70°C. Actinomycetes participate in diverse soil processes (ammonium fixation, decomposition of cellular tissue, and the synthesis and decomposition of humus). Many actinomycetes are used to produce antibiotics, vitamins, pigments, amino acids, and other biologically active substances.
REFERENCESKrasil’nikov, N. A. Luchistye gribki i rodstvennye im organizmy: Actinomycetales. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938.
Waksman, S. A. The Actinomycetes, vols. 1–2. Baltimore, 1959–61.
N. A. KRASIL’NIKOV