Gram +ve on the left, Gram -ve on the right.
As well as hinting that Mr Gram was one of those people who knows what shade 'fuchsia' is, the Gram stain is also one of the most important ways of telling what kind of bacteria you're dealing with. Despite being seemingly arbitrary, the composition of the cell wall plays a major role in determining behaviour. Gram negative bacteria (small cell wall, two cell membranes, see the picture below) tend to be motile, opportunistic, and able to colonise a wider range of environments. Gram positives on the other hand (big cell wall) are not so motile, but tend to have a huge range of excretory proteins to make up for this; almost all known antibiotics come from Gram positive bacteria.Again, Gram +ve on the left, -ve on the right. Image from soil microbiology webpage
One thing that I've never really considered before is which one of them evolved from which. I haven't done much taxonomy, and the only time I really covered bacteria (unrelated to lab work) was in my Pathology course, which didn't seem too concerned about where different types of bacteria had come from, only what they were currently up to. The few times I did vaguely think about this though, I would have gone for the positive to negative direction. After all, surely you start with one cell membrane, and move on to two.
I recently came across a paper that came to the complete opposite conclusion, and therefore was too interesting not to read. The thing about bacterial taxonomy is that a lot of the major changes to morphology took place in Deep Time, and bacteria leave precious few fossils. Bacteria (and archaea...) had somewhere in the region of over one billion years to evolve before eukaryotic-things even started to be considered. That's a lot of time to try and sort out. To put that into context, one billion years ago from now things were just about starting to think about going multicellular. No dinosaurs, no plants even; the most complex form of life was something resembling a sofa cushion.
So how to sort out what was going on in that billion years or so? There are four main ways of going about it:
- Paleontological evidence. Bacteria don't form a huge number of fossils, but they can occasionally leave some physical evidence of their presence. For example, bacteria that eat iron will leave behind little fossilised iron cases; those that eat rocks can leave microscopic drilling holes. These provide temporal evidence for changes in structure and metabolism.
- Transition analysis. This is used to polarise major changes by turning them into a simple before-or-after question, and uses comparative, developmental, and selective arguments for determining answers. For example: did legs or wings develop first? Or, in bacterial cases: Which came first, Gram negative or Gram positive?
- Congruence testing. This searches for similarities across whole evolutionary trees, enabling loss or gain of evolutionary abilities (wings, feathers, second membranes etc) to be identified and polarised. As this is a comparison of many species, it allows potential mistakes from the arguments made in transition analysis to be found.
- Sequence trees. Sequence trees are ... problematic, but at the same time indispensably useful. They are formed by taking DNA sequences from a range of organisms and then using algorithms to tell the 'relatedness' between sequences and using these 'relatedness' levels to make evolutionary trees. They tend to be biased towards your sample distribution, undirectional, unable to properly account for generation times, and go somewhat screwy when you try to introduce horizontal gene transfer. Nevertheless they were instrumental data in showing that archaea and bacteria are two very distinct super-kingdoms (and I will freely admit that most of my distrust for them occurs because I can't get the damn things to work whenever I try them)
However like many evolutionary stories, that one falls apart a little when closer examined. Because Gram positive bacteria are not simply 'one cell membrane' they also have a massive cell wall surrounding them. Developing a second cell membrane on top of that seems absurd. And then why would the cell wall shrink? And how would anything get through this suddenly developed cell membrane. Transport proteins for the outer membrane tend to form a protein structure called a beta-sheet, while those for the inner membrane form an alpha-helix. That's a whole new system of protein folding that has to evolve pretty quickly, because otherwise the bacteria will starve, nothing can get through its outer membrane (which is balancing precariously on top of the huge cell wall...)
In view of this, the schematic seen on the right starts to make a little more sense (figure taken from the reference below). 'Murein' means 'peptidoglycan cell wall' and the cytoplasm denotes the inside of the cell. In this scenario, the double-membraned proto-bacteria (which has spend the last half-a-billion years or so evolving a well adjusted double membrane system) suddenly looses the outer membrane. A very simple genetic change would lead to a massively overgrown cell wall, which would rip the outer membrane away. The cell looses all it's outer membrane porins, and signal systems, but in return gains a highly protective cell wall, which potentially allows it to survive in different niches. How these aspects are lost genetically is another matter, and the paper rather hand-waves away by saying that unused genes tend to get lost eventually. Which is true in bacteria, they have such a small genome they don't want it getting filled up with unnecessary genes, but I have a feeling genes tend to leave something behind. Even so, the question of where the now-unnecessary genes go is possibly one of the weaker parts of this arguments (to my untrained student eyes at least.).
One thing that would really support this hypothesis would be to show that Gram positive bacteria formed a 'mono-clade' i.e came from a single universal common ancestor. Unfortunately this data is proving hard to pin down, not helped by the bacterial trick of swapping DNA around with all and sundry. Another confounding factor is the sheer space of time. Trying to determine whether a range of different modern bacteria all came from the same blob several million years ago is a daunting task. You can sort of get RNA sequence trees that support the mono-cladal Gram positives, but only if you close one eye and squint, which is not generally accepted scientific practise.
I don't think I'll ever end up going into taxonomy, even of bacteria. but it does produce fascinating ways to look at the world; how it changed, how it evolved, and how it finally turned into the way it is now. Orwell wrote, fairly famously, "He who controls the past commands the future", and when you're trying to figure out how bacterial resistance works, and preferably how to stop them getting it, that phrase takes on a whole new meaning beyond the political.
(It's not a perfect quote for this post. "Understands the past" would work better. But I'm not quite pretentious enough to go trawling through the quote archives to find something better. Any suggestions would be appreciated :p )
Cavalier-Smith T (2006). Rooting the tree of life by transition analyses. Biology direct, 1 PMID: 16834776