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5 Different Types of Bacteria

By Leann Mikesh, Ph.D.Nov 07, 2016

Bacteria are microscopic single-celled organisms that are all around us. They come in
many different sizes and shapes, and this is a common way to classify them—by their
morphology, or shape and appearance. The three basic shapes of bacteria are spherical,
rod shaped and spiral. Spiral-shaped bacteria can be further categorized depending in part
on how much spiraling they show. Not all bacteria are capable of causing disease, but
each morphology-based group has at least some disease-causing representatives.
Cocci are round, spherical bacteria. They may be single bacteria or they may occur in
pairs, chains or clusters of bacteria, depending on the bacterium and environmental
conditions. Cocci cause many different common illnesses. Among the more common
cocci are Staphylococcus aureus, which appears as a cluster of cocci. Staph aureus often
grows harmlessly in the nose and on the skin, but given a chance, this organism can cause
boils, pneumonia, meningitis and even toxic shock syndrome—a rare, life-threatening
condition. Streptococcus pyogenes occurs as a chain of cocci and causes diseases that
originate in the throat or skin, including strep throat and a related condition known as
scarlet fever. Neisseria meningitidis occurs in pairs of cocci. This bacterium is an
important cause of bacterial meningitis—a potentially life threatening infection, with
inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
Bacilli are rod-shaped bacteria that look like little sausages, occurring singly or in linked
chains. Escherichia coli is a rod-shaped bacterium that normally lives in your intestinal
tract without causing disease, however it can cause disease at other sites, such as the
urinary tract. Some strains of E. coli are spread by eating or drinking contaminated food
or water, causing diarrhea and potentially more widespread illness in some individuals.
Corynebacterium diphtheriae, another rod-shaped bacterium, infects the respiratory tract
and causes diphtheria, a vaccine-preventable disease. Bacillus anthracis is the cause of
anthrax. This rod-shaped bacterium grows in long chains, can infect you through broken
skin, ingestion or inhalation and is therefore considered among the organisms that have
bioterrorism potential.
Members of the vibrio group represent one of the three types of bacteria that have a spiral
shape. Vibrio bacteria are comma-shaped, appearing like curved rods. They typically live
in aquatic environments and move in a darting motion using a single flagellum, a whip-
like structure. Vibrio cholerae causes cholera—an intestinal infection that causes severe
diarrhea and dehydration. Drinking water contaminated by feces transmits cholera, and
epidemics may occur after natural disasters and in developing countries due to poor
sanitation. Cholera is a very serious disease that can lead to death if not treated promptly.
Spirilla are another subgroup of bacteria with a more rigid, corkscrew-like spiral shape.
One such bacterium is Campylobacter jejuni, a cause of foodborne illness and diarrhea.
Campylobacter jejuni is typically acquired in places where sanitation is poor or by eating
raw or undercooked poultry. Campylobacter is among the most common causes of
diarrheal illness in the United States. Helicobacter pylori is also corkscrew-shaped
bacteria, and it thrives in the stomach, where it burrows into the lining. Helicobacter
pylori may be living in a person’s stomach without causing symptoms, but this organism
is also associated with stomach inflammation and ulcers in many people.
Related: Types of Coliform Bacteria
Spirochetes are long, thin and flexible corkscrew-shaped bacteria. They typically move in
a distinctive rotating manner that allows them to be mobile in mucus-lined tissue or
viscous environments. Two well-known spirochetes that cause disease in humans are
Treponema pallidum and Borrelia burgdorferi. Treponema pallidum causes the sexually
transmitted disease syphilis. Infection typically begins as a single sore at the site of
infection. Additional lesions or rashes can develop elsewhere on the body if left
untreated. Borrelia burgdorferi is transmitted through the bite of an infected deer tick and
causes Lyme disease. Infection with Borrelia burgdorferi may, but does not always, result
in a typical "bull's-eye" rash. If left untreated, it can affect your heart and nervous system
and cause arthritis.