Primary nutritional groups

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An organism may be placed into one each of the three pairs of major nutritional groups based on their carbon, energy, and electron sources.

  • Carbon source refers to the source of carbon used by an organism for growth and development. An organism is defined as heterotrophic when using organic substrates to get its carbon for growth and development, whereas it is autotrophic, when its source of carbon is carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • Reducing equivalent source refers to the necessity of deriving reducing equivalents (electrons) from environmental sources to be used in biosynthetic pathways (e. g. in the form of NADH or NADPH). An organism is defined as organotrophic when it uses organic compounds as source of electrons, whereas it is defined as lithotrophic when it uses inorganic compounds. Organotrophic organisms are often also heterotrophic, using organic compounds as sources of electrons and carbon at the same time. Similarly, lithotrophic organisms are often also autotrophic, using inorganic sources of electrons and (CO2) as inorganic carbon source.
  • Energy source refers to the pathways used by the organism to produce ATP, which is required for fueling the anabolic pathways for biosynthesis of the constituents of the cell. An organism is defined phototrophic when it uses light as energy source, whereas it is chemotrophic when it conserves energy from reactions of chemical compounds.

The basis for energy metabolism of most chemotrophic organisms are oxidation-reduction reactions in which electrons move from an electron donor to an electron acceptor. Energy is released during the reaction. Therefore, compounds used as electron donors by chemotrophs must be diverted into both energy-yielding oxidative pathways and biosynthetic reductive pathways. The range of possible pairs of electron donors and acceptors for chemotrophs is limited to those whose reaction is exergonic enough to conserve enough energy for the transition of at least one proton over a membrane (equals to -15 to -20 kJ/mol). In contrast, phototrophs may use any electron donor and can even catalyse highly endergonic reactions (e. g. the photosynthetic production of starch from water and CO2).

It should be noted that the terms aerobic respiration, anaerobic respiration and fermentation are not referring to primary nutritional groups, but simply reflect the different use of possible electron acceptors in the energy metabolism of chemotrophic organisms, such as O2 (aerobic respiration), NO3-, SO42- or fumarate (anaerobic respiration), or intrinsic metabolic intermediates (fermentation). Because all ATP-generating steps in fermentation involve modifications of metabolic intermediates instead of an electron transport chain it is often referred to as substrate-level phosphorylation.

Table

Energy source Reducing equivalent source Carbon source Name
Light
Photo-
Organic
-organo-
Organic
-heterotroph
Photoorganoheterotroph
Carbon dioxide
-autotroph
Photoorganoautotroph
Inorganic
-litho-
Organic
-heterotroph
Photolithoheterotroph
Carbon dioxide
-autotroph
Photolithoautotroph
Chemical compounds
Chemo-
Organic
-organo-
Organic
-heterotroph
Chemoorganoheterotroph
Carbon dioxide
-autotroph
Chemoorganoautotroph
Inorganic
-litho-
Organic
-heterotroph
Chemolithoheterotroph
Carbon dioxide
-autotroph
Chemolithoautotroph

Examples

All sorts of combinations may exist in nature. For example most cyanobacteria are photoautotrophic, since they use light as an electron donor and CO2 as a carbon source. Fungi are chemoorganotrophic since they use organic carbon as both an electron donor and carbon source. Eukaryotes are generally easy to categorise. All animals are heterotrophic, as are fungi. Plants are photoautotrophic. Some eukaryotic microorganisms, however, are not limited to just one nutritional mode. For example, some algae live photoautotrophically in the light, but shift to chemoorganotophy in the dark. Even higher plants retained their ability to respire heterotrophically on the starch at night which had been synthesised phototrophically during the day.

On the contrary, prokaryotes show a great diversity of nutritional categories. For example, purple sulfur bacteria and cyanobacteria are generally photoautotrophic where as purple non-sulfur bacteria are photoorganotrophic. Some bacteria are limited to only one nutritional group, whereas others are facultative and switch from one mode to the other, depending on the nutrient sources available.

See also


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