Bacterial Capsule: Importance, Capsulated Bacteria

Last updated on July 4th, 2021

Some bacterial cells are surrounded by a viscous substance forming a covering layer or envelope around the cell wall, called capsule. Capsule can be visualized by light microscopy using special staining methods. If the layer is too thin to be seen by light microscopy it is termed a microcapsule. If it is so abundant that many cells are embedded in a common matrix, then it is called the slime layer.

Capsule (also known as K antigen) is a major virulence factor of bacteria, e.g. all of the principal pathogens which cause pneumonia and meningitis, including Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Neisseria meningitidis, Klebsiella pneumoniae,  Escherichia coli, and group B streptococci have polysaccharide capsules on their surface. Nonencapsulated mutants of these organisms are avirulent.

Structure and Composition

Bacterial Capsule Image source: ASM
Bacterial Capsule

Capsule is a gelatinous layer covering the entire bacterium. In light microscopy, capsules appear to be amorphous gelatinous areas surrounding the cell. Capsule is located immediately exterior to the murein (peptidoglycan) layer of gram-positive bacteria and the outer membrane (Lipopolysaccharide layer) of gram-negative bacteria. In electron microscopy, capsule appears like a mesh or network of fine strands.

Most bacterial capsules are composed of polysaccharides (i.e. poly: many, saccharide: sugar). These polymers are composed of repeating oligosaccharide units of two to four monosaccharides. Capsules composed of single kinds of sugars are termed homopolysaccharides. For example, the capsule of Streptococcus mutans is made up of glucose polymers. If several kinds of sugars are present in a capsule, then it is called heteropolysaccharides, eg., the capsule of Klebsiella pneumoniae. The capsule of Bacillus anthracis is an exception. This polypeptide capsule is composed of polymerized D-glutamic acid.

The sugar components of polysaccharides vary within the species of bacteria, which determines their serologic types. Example: Streptococcus pneumoniae has 84 different serotypes discovered so far.

Capsule Vs. Slime Layers

Slime is a loose network of polymers extending outward from a cell whereas capsule is a dense and well-defined polymer layer surrounding the cell. Both capsules and slime layers are important for the adherence of microorganisms and subsequent colonization but they differ in some of the properties.

Difference between capsule and slime layers

PropertiesCapsuleSlime Layer
OrganizationIn capsule, polysaccharide layer is organized in a tight matrix that excludes small particles, such as India ink, it is called a capsuleIn slime layer, polysaccharide layer is more easily deformed, do not exclude particles and is more difficult to see.
AdherenceCapsules typically adhere firmly to the cell wall, and some are even covalently linked to peptidoglycanSlime layers, by contrast, are loosely attached and can be lost from the cell surface.  
Role in pathogenesisCapsule of pathogenic Escherichia coli promotes adherence to the brush border of intestinal microvilli.  Dextran slime layer of Streptococcus mutans promotes binding to tooth surfaces

Importance of Bacterial Capsule

Virulence determinants

Capsules are anti-phagocytic. They limit the ability of phagocytes to engulf the bacteria. The smooth nature and negative charge of the capsule prevent the phagocyte from adhering to and engulfing the bacterial cell. If pathogenic bacteria lose capsules (by mutation), they won’t be able to cause disease (i.e. loses disease-causing capacity). Polysaccharide capsule is the major virulence factor for Streptococcus pneumonia. Encapsulated strains of S. pneumoniae grow in lung tissues in enormous numbers, where they initiate host responses that lead to pneumonia. Nonencapsulated strains are less pathogenic; they are quickly and efficiently ingested and destroyed by phagocytes via the process called phagocytosis.

Saving engulfed bacteria from the action of neutrophil

Bacterial capsule prevents the direct access of lysosome contents with the bacterial cell, preventing their killing.

Prevention of complement-mediated bacterial cell lysis

Capsule of gram-positive bacteria such as S. pneumoniae prevents interaction between C3b deposited on the bacterial membrane and the CR1 on phagocytic cells.

Protection of anaerobes from oxygen toxicity.

Identification of bacteria

Anti-phagocytic nature of Bacterial capsule
Anti-phagocytic nature of Bacterial capsule
  1. Using specific antiserum against capsular polysaccharide.  E.g. Quellung reaction
  2. Colony characteristics in culture media: Bacteria with capsules form smooth (S) colonies while those without capsules form rough (R) colonies. A given bacterial species may undergo a phenomenon called S-R variation whereby the cell loses the ability to form a capsule. Some capsules are very large and absorb water; bacteria with this type of capsule (e.g., Klebsiella pneumoniae) form mucoid (M) colonies.

Development of Vaccines

Capsular polysaccharides are used as antigens in certain vaccines. For examples:

  • Polyvalent (23 serotypes) polysaccharide vaccine of Streptococcus pneumoniae capsule.
  • Polyvalent (4 serotypes) vaccine of Neisseria meningitidis capsule.
  • A monovalent vaccine made up of capsular material from Haemophilus influenzae.

Initiation of infection

Capsules help the organism adhere to host cells. The capsule also facilitates and maintains bacterial colonization of biological (e.g. teeth) and inanimate (e.g. prosthetic heart valves) surfaces through the formation of biofilms.

Receptors for bacteriophages.

Examples of Capsulated bacteria/yeasts:

Mneomonics to remember capsulated bacteria– Some Killers Have Pretty Nice Capsule

  1. Streptococcus pneumoniae
  2. Klebsiella pneumoniae
  3. Haemophilus influenzae
  4. Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  5. Neisseria meningitidis
  6. Cryptococcus neoformans

Compositions of capsules of capsulated organisms

Capsulated Bacteria
Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)Polysaccharide
Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus)Polysaccharide
Haemophilus influenzaePolysaccharide
Klebsiella pneumoniaePolysaccharide
Pseudomonas aeruginosaPolysaccharide
Bacteriodes fragilisPolysaccharide
Bacillus anthracisPolypeptide (glutamate)
Streptococcus pyogenes (some strain)Hyaluronic acid
Capsulated Fungus
Cryptococcus neoformansPolysaccharide

About Acharya Tankeshwar 476 Articles
Hello, thank you for visiting my blog. I am Tankeshwar Acharya. Blogging is my passion. I am working as an Asst. Professor and Microbiologist at Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Nepal. If you want me to write about any posts that you found confusing/difficult, please mention in the comments below.