The cell capsule is a very large structure of some prokaryotic cells, such as bacterial cells. It is a layer that lies outside the cell wall of bacteria. It is a well organized layer, not easily washed off, and it can be the cause of various diseases.
When the amorphous viscid secretion (that makes up the capsule) diffuses into the surrounding medium and remains as a loose undemarcated secretion, it is known as slime layer.
It usually consists of polysaccharides, but can be composed of other materials (e.g., polypeptide in B. anthracis). Because most capsules are so tightly packed, they are difficult to stain using standard stains because most stains cannot adhere to the capsule. For examination under the microscope, the bacteria and their background are stained darker than the capsule, which doesn't stain. When viewed, bacterial cells as well as the surface they are on, are stained dark, while the capsule remains pale or colorless and appears as a ring, or halo, around the cell.
The capsule is considered a virulence factor because it enhances the ability of bacteria to cause disease (e.g. prevents phagocytosis). The capsule can protect cells from engulfment by eukaryotic cells, such as macrophages. A capsule-specific antibody may be required for phagocytosis to occur. Capsules also contain water which protects bacteria against desiccation. They also exclude bacterial viruses and most hydrophobic toxic materials such as detergents. There are 14 different capsule types, which each impart their own specific antigenicity. Immunity to one capsule type does not result in immunity to the other types. Capsules also help cells adhere to surfaces.
The capsule is found most commonly among Gram-negative bacteria:
- Escherichia coli (in some strains)
- Neisseria meningitidis
- Klebsiella pneumoniae
- Haemophilus influenzae
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa
- Salmonella
However, some Gram-positive bacteria may also have a capsule:
- Bacillus megaterium for example, synthesizes a capsule composed of polypeptide and polysaccharides.
- Streptococcus pyogenes synthesizes a hyaluronic acid capsule.
- Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Streptococcus agalactiae produces a polysaccharide capsule of nine antigenic types that all contain sialic acid (Ia, Ib, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII).
- Staphylococcus epidermidis
A common mnemonic used to remember some encapsulated pathogens is:
"Even Some Super Killers Have Pretty Nice Big Capsules"
Escherichia coli, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Salmonella, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Neisseria meningitidis, Bacteroides fragilis, and the yeast Cryptococcus neoformans.
Demonstration of Capsule
- India ink staining: the capsule appears as a clear halo around the bacterium as the ink can't penetrate the capsule.:87
- Serological methods: Capsular material is antigenic and can be demonstrated by mixing it with a specific anticapsular serum. When examined under the microscope, the capsule appears 'swollen' due to an increase in its refractivity. This phenomenon is the basis of Quellung reaction.
Use in vaccination
- "bacterial capsule" at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
- Encyclopedia Britannica [Capsules and Slime Layers].
- Daffé M, Etienne G (1999). "The capsule of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and its implications for pathogenicity". Tuber Lung Dis 79 (3): 153–69. doi:10.1054/tuld.1998.0200. PMID 10656114.
- Yoshida K, Matsumoto T, Tateda K, Uchida K, Tsujimoto S, Yamaguchi K (November 2000). "Role of bacterial capsule in local and systemic inflammatory responses of mice during pulmonary infection with Klebsiella pneumoniae". J. Med. Microbiol. 49 (11): 1003–10. PMID 11073154.
- Schouls L, van der Heide H, Witteveen S, et al. (2008). "Two variants among Haemophilus influenzae serotype b strains with distinct bcs4, hcsA and hcsB genes display differences in expression of the polysaccharide capsule". BMC Microbiol. 8: 35. doi:10.1186/1471-2180-8-35. PMC 2267795. PMID 18298818.
- Gates MA, Thorkildson P, Kozel TR (April 1390). "Molecular architecture of the Cryptococcus neoformans capsule". Mol. Microbiol. 52 (1): 13–24. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2958.2003.03957.x. PMID 15049807.
- Prokaryotes. Newnes. Apr 11, 1996.