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Group of microscopic, single-celled organisms that inhabit virtually all environments, including soil, water, organic matter, and the bodies of multicellular animals. Bacteria are distinguished in part by their morphological and genetic features; for instance, they may have spherical, rodlike, or spiral shapes. They also can be divided into two main groups, gram-positive or gram-negative, based on the structure of their cell wall and their reaction to the gram stain. Many bacteria swim by means of flagella (seeflagellum). The DNA of most bacteria is found in a single circular chromosome and is distributed throughout the cytoplasm rather than contained within a membrane-enclosed nucleus. Though some bacteria can cause food poisoning and infectious diseases in humans, most are harmless and many are beneficial. They are used in various industrial processes, especially in the food industry (e.g., the production of yogurt, cheeses, and pickles). Bacteria are genetically distinct from the archaea. As prokaryotic organisms (having no membrane-bound nucleus), they are also distinct from eukaryotes. See alsobudding bacteria, coliform bacteria, cyanobacteria, denitrifying bacteria, nitrifying bacteria, sheathed bacteria, sulfur bacteria.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on bacteria, visit Britannica.com.