A microbial cyst is a resting or dormant stage of a microorganism, usually a bacterium or a protist or rarely an invertebrate animal, that helps the organism to survive in unfavorable environmental conditions. It can be thought of as a state of suspended animation in which the metabolic processes of the cell are slowed down and the cell ceases all activities like feeding and locomotion. Encystment also helps the microbe to disperse easily, from one host to another or to a more favorable environment. When the encysted microbe reaches an environment favorable to its growth and survival, the cyst wall breaks down by a process known as excystation.
Unfavorable environmental conditions such as lack of nutrients or oxygen, extreme temperatures, lack of moisture and presence of toxic chemicals, which are not conducive for the growth of the microbe trigger the formation of a cyst.
Cyst formation across species
In bacteria (for instance, Azotobacter sp.), encystment occurs by changes in the cell wall; the cytoplasm contracts and the cell wall thickens. Bacterial cysts differ from endospores in the way they are formed and also the degree of resistance to unfavorable conditions. Endospores are much more resistant than cysts.
Protists, especially protozoan parasites, are often exposed to very harsh conditions at various stages in their life cycle. For example, Entamoeba histolytica, a common intestinal parasite that causes dysentery, has to endure the highly acidic environment of the stomach before it reaches the intestine and various unpredictable conditions like desiccation and lack of nutrients while it is outside the host. An encysted form is well suited to survive such extreme conditions, although protozoan cysts are less resistant to adverse conditions compared to bacterial cysts. In addition to survival, the chemical composition of certain protozoan cyst walls may play a role in their dispersal. The sialyl groups present in the cyst wall of Entamoeba histolytica confer a net negative charge to the cyst which prevents its attachment to the intestinal wall thus causing its elimination in the feces. Other protozoan intestinal parasites like Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium also produce cysts as part of their life cycle (see oocyst). In some protozoans, the unicellular organism multiplies during or after encystment and releases multiple trophozoites upon excystation.
Composition of the cyst wall
The composition of the cyst wall is variable in different organisms. The cyst walls of bacteria are formed by the thickening of the normal cell wall with added peptidoglycan layers whereas the walls of protozoan cysts are made of chitin, a type of glycoprotein. Nematode cyst walls are composed of chitin reinforced by collagen.
- Spore (in bacteria, fungi and algae)
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