Extracellular and Intracellular Bacteria

Pathogenic bacteria can be grouped into two major categories on the basis of their invasive properties for eukaryotic cells.

  1. Extracellular bacteria
  2. Intracellular bacteria
    1. Facultative intracellular
    2. Obligate intracellular
Extracellular and Intracellular Bacteria

Extracellular bacteria

Extracellular bacterial pathogens do not invade cells instead, they proliferate in the extracellular environment which is enriched with body fluids. Some extracellular bacteria even don’t penetrate body tissues (e.g. Vibrio cholerae) but adhere to epithelial surfaces and cause disease by secreting potent toxins.

Although bacteria such as E. coli and P. aeruginosa are termed noninvasive, they frequently spread rapidly to various tissues once they gain access to the body.  Extracellular bacteria do not have the capacity to survive the intracellular environment or to induce their own uptake by most host cells.

Predominantly extracellular bacteria are:

  • Bacillus anthracis
  • Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Mycoplasma spp
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Streptococcus pyogenes
  • Vibrio cholerae

Intracellular Bacteria

Intracellular pathogens commonly cause “granulomatous lesions”. They are divided into two groups-

  • Those that can be cultured in microbiologic media in the laboratory (facultative) or
  • Those that required living cells/animals (obligate).

Facultative Intracellular Bacteria

Facultative intracellular bacteria invade host cells when it gives them a selective advantage. Bacteria that can enter and survive within eukaryotic cells are shielded from humoral antibodies and can be eliminated only by a cellular immune response. However, these bacteria must possess specialized mechanisms to protect them from the harsh environment of the lysosomal enzymes encountered within the cells.

Other facultative intracellular bacteria are:

  1.  Invasive Escherichia coli
  2. Neisseria spp
  3. Brucella spp
  4. Shigella spp
  5. Francisella tularensis

Histoplasma capsulatum and Cryptococcus neoformans are facultative intracellular fungi.

Obligate intracellular bacteria

This group of bacteria can’t live outside the host cells. For e.g. Chlamydial cells are unable to carry out energy metabolism and lack many biosynthetic pathways, therefore they are entirely dependent on the host cell to supply them with ATP and other intermediates.  Because of this dependency, chlamydiae were earlier thought to be a virus.

All viruses are obligate intracellular parasites.

Obligate intracellular bacteria cannot be grown in artificial media (agar plates/broths) in laboratories but requires viable eukaryotic host cells (eg. cell culture, embryonated eggs, susceptible animals).

Pneumocystis jiroveci is an obligate intracellular fungi.

Other obligate intracellular bacteria are:

  1. Mycobacterium leprae cannot be cultured in vitro; it is an obligate intracellular parasite.
  2. Coxiella burnetti: The metabolic activity of Coxiella burnettii is greatly increased in the acidic environment of the phagolysosome.
  3. Rickettsia spp

Toxoplasma, Cryptosporidium, Plasmodium, Leishmania, Babesia, and Trypanosoma are obligate intracellular parasites.


  1. Madigan Michael T, Bender, Kelly S, Buckley, Daniel H, Sattley, W. Matthew, & Stahl, David A. (2018). Brock Biology of Microorganisms (15th Edition). Pearson.
  2. Color Atlas and Textbook of Diagnostic Microbiology, Koneman, 5th edition

Acharya Tankeshwar

Hello, thank you for visiting my blog. I am Tankeshwar Acharya. Blogging is my passion. As an asst. professor, I am teaching microbiology and immunology to medical and nursing students at PAHS, Nepal. I have been working as a microbiologist at Patan hospital for more than 10 years.

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