Microorganisms sense and adapt to changes in their environment. When favored nutrients are exhausted, some bacteria may become motile to seek out nutrients, or they may produce enzymes to exploit alternative resources. One example of an extreme survival strategy employed by certain low G+C Gram-positive bacteria is the formation of endospores. This complex developmental process is often initiated in response to nutrient deprivation. It allows the bacterium to produce a dormant and highly resistant cell to preserve the cell·s genetic material in times of extreme stress.
Endospores can survive environmental assaults that would normally kill the bacterium. These stresses include high temperature, high UV irradiation, desiccation, chemical damage and enzymatic destruction. The extraordinary resistance properties of endospores make them of particular importance because they are not readily killed by many antimicrobial treatments. A variety of different microorganisms form ·spores· or ·cysts·, but the endospores of low G+C Gram-positive bacteria are by far the most resistant to harsh conditions.
Endospore Structure: The resilience of an endospore can be explained in part by its unique cellular structure. The outer proteinaceous coat surrounding the spore provides much of the chemical and enzymatic resistance. Beneath the coat resides a very thick layer of specialized peptidoglycan called the cortex. Proper cortex formation is needed for dehydration of the spore core, which aids in resistance to high temperature. A germ cell wall resides under the cortex. This layer of peptidoglycan will become the cell wall of the bacterium after the endospore germinates. The inner membrane, under the germ cell wall, is a major permeability barrier against several potentially damaging chemicals. The center of the endospore, the core, exists in a very dehydrated state and houses the cell·s DNA, ribosomes and large amounts of dipicolinic acid. This endospore-specific chemical can comprise up to 10% of the spore·s dry weight and appears to play a role in maintaining spore dormancy. Small acid-soluble proteins (SASPs) are also only found in endospores. These proteins tightly bind and condense the DNA, and are in part responsible for resistance to UV light and DNA-damaging chemicals. Other species-specific structures and chemicals associated with endospores include stalks, toxin crystals, or an additional outer glycoprotein layer called the exosporium.