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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2012



Knowledge of the physiology and metabolism of prokaryotes underpins our understanding of the roles and activities of these organisms in the environment, including pathogenic and symbiotic relationships, as well as their exploitation in biotechnology. Prokaryotic organisms include bacteria and archaea and, although remaining relatively small and simple in structure throughout their evolutionary history, exhibit incredible diversity regarding their metabolism and physiology. Such metabolic diversity is reflective of the wide range of habitats where prokaryotes can thrive and in many cases dominate the biota, and is a distinguishing contrast with eukaryotes that exhibit a more restricted metabolic versatility. Thus, prokaryotes can be found almost everywhere under a wide range of physical and chemical conditions, including aerobic to anaerobic, light and dark, low to high pressure, low to high salt concentrations, extremes of acidity and alkalinity, and extremes of nutrient availability. Some physiologies, e.g. lithotrophy and nitrogen fixation, are only found in certain groups of prokaryotes, while the use of inorganic compounds, such as nitrate and sulfate, as electron acceptors in respiration is another prokaryotic ability. The explosion of knowledge resulting from the development and application of molecular biology to microbial systems has perhaps led to a reduced emphasis on their physiology and biochemistry, yet paradoxically has enabled further detailed analysis and understanding of metabolic processes. Almost in a reflection of the bacterial growth pattern, the number of scientific papers has grown at an exponential rate, while the number of prokaryotic genome sequences determined is also increasing rapidly.

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