Medical Terminology: Gram Positive vs. Gram Negative Bacteria

    Written by: Jared Schaalje /
    Apr 12, 2013 2:47:00 PM

    Wellness Coaches who understand the difference between gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria are better equipped to interpret and apply research on essential oils and herbs that have specific actions against one or the other. And remember, one of the best ways to fight gram-positive and gram-negative bacterial outbreaks is to prevent them from occurring in the first place! 

    Have you ever wondered what the difference is between gram-positive bacteria and gram-negative bacteria? Do these terms ever confuse you? There is no need for confusion anymore!

    Have you ever seen a bulletproof vest, a thin metal armored jacket like those worn by medieval knights, or a similarly thin chain mail shirt worn by ancient soldiers? If so, then you can understand gram-negative bacteria.

    Have you ever seen a thick wooden fence surrounding a yard, or a similarly thick dry walled partition inside a house? If so, then you can understand gram-positive bacteria.

    The key to understanding these differences is in the protective membrane, or outer covering, surrounding these bacterial organisms. Gram-positive bacteria have a big thick membrane. Gram-negative bacteria have a thin membrane, which is nearly "bulletproof.”

    gram-positive cell wall

    Image: Structure of Gram-positive cell wall. Image is copyright free from Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gram-positive_cellwall-schematic.png

    Gram-positive bacteria can be compared to a heavy wooden fence, with thick and wide planks, surrounding a yard. Or, perhaps visualize gram-positive bacteria as a room in a house, which is reinforced by dry walled barriers, complete with 2x4 wooden studs and foam/fiberglass insulation between the layers of drywall.

    Gram-negative bacteria can be likened to a thin bulletproof Kevlar vest surrounding a security guard. Or, perhaps the gram-negative bacteria can be compared to a very thin metal armored breastplate, surrounding a Roman warrior or medieval English knight during battle. It could also be envisaged as a thin chain mail shirt being worn by an ancient militant.

    gram-negative cell wallImage: Structure of gram-negative cell wall. Image copyright free from Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gram_negative_cell_wall.svg

    Bulletproof vests, such as those worn by the military or city police personnel, are very thin. A heavy wood fence, or a dry walled partition, is quite thick. If someone used a common gun and shot a slug at the bulletproof vest, it would probably not penetrate or go through it. The bulletproof vest is difficult to penetrate with powerful weapons. Thus, the organism (police) would likely be unharmed. However, if someone shot a bullet at a thick wooden fence, or shot through a dry walled barrier in a room, the projectile would probably penetrate these surfaces and blast completely through. A damaging hole would be created in the drywall or wooden structure.

    Thick fences and drywall can absorb material such as sand, dirt, dust, paint, water, mold, etc. They can rot, crack, weaken, become mushy, and eventually peal away and become brittle. Thin bulletproof vests, as well as slim metal armored jackets and slender chain mail shirts, do not easily absorb dirt, dust, sand, mold or water. Kevlar and metal do not rot or attract fungus. They also do not fracture, become schmaltzy, or break. Thus, the thick fence and house walls are capable of absorbing more matter, whereas the thin protective martial barriers do not absorb stray particulates.

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    If you want to penetrate these surfaces, then you must employ different strategies. This is the same principle applied by pharmacologists, who use different drug tactics to pierce the membrane of dissimilar bacteria. A sword, no matter how sharp, will probably not slice through metal armor or chain mail. However, a knife can penetrate a bulletproof vest because these vests were designed to spread out the impact of a bullet, but were not designed to stop a sharp knife. A sword, a saw, or a knife will quite easily penetrate a wooden fence or a dry walled barricade. Fire will burn down a fence. A strong water blast, such as an explosion from a fire hose, could easily turn a dry walled divider, and its interior insulation, into mushy oatmeal-like slop. Fire and water, however, will not really damage metal armor, bulletproof vests, or chain mail shirts. But, a welding torch could soften a metal-armored jacket and burn a hole in it or cause it to smelt.

    Also, consider the example of cold weather. A dry walled room will effectively protect the organisms (humans) from an extreme arctic climate. However, a metal armored jacket or a bulletproof vest will do nothing to protect the organisms (humans) from cold winds and hypothermic conditions. It also goes without saying that the chain mail shirt will likewise not provide any meaningful insulation for the medieval warrior wandering through northern Finland.

    Now that you have a clear idea of these membranes, let’s talk technical. Gram-positive bacteria have greater volume of peptidoglycan in their cell membranes. In other words, gram-positive bacteria have a very thick outer covering. This thick outer covering, or membrane, is capable of absorbing a lot of foreign material just as fences and walls can absorb mold and moisture. Gram-negative bacteria have a much thinner membrane, but this membrane can be nearly impossible to infiltrate. The cell membrane of gram-positive bacteria can be as much as 20-fold thicker than the protective covering of gram-negative bacteria.

    Some examples of gram-positive bacteria include Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Clostridium botulinum (botulism toxin). Because of their thin but difficult-to-penetrate cell membrane, gram-negative bacteria are often resistant to antibiotics and other antibacterial interventions. Examples of gram-negative bacteria include cholera, gonorrhea, and E. coli. The protective covering of these, and other, gram-negative bacteria make them much more difficult to treat and eradicate.

    Thus, with these analogies, you can quite easily see why some of the “big gun” antibiotics, which work well for serious infections like staph or strep, may have little effect on plaguing gram-negative bacterium eruptions, such as a cholera outbreak or a mass gonorrheal epidemic. The fire-hose or shotgun-bullet antibiotics, which easily damage gram-positive bacterial membranes, are often unable to blast through or weaken the protective coverings found on gram-negative bacterium.

    Finally, here’s some more interesting food-for-thought. Have you ever wondered about bacterial evolution and why certain antibiotics, which were once effective, suddenly become impotent and powerless?

    To understand this phenomenon, consider the example of fireproof drywall. Years ago, fire could easily burn down a room in a house. Today, in our modern era, fireproof chemicals in drywall have made it much more difficult for an intense heat blast to weaken these fortifications. Likewise, mold-resistant fence wood and water-resistant bathroom drywall have made it much more difficult for these structures to be damaged by rot, moisture, and mildew. Drywall, fences, and insulation have evolved to withstand certain forces that were previously damaging. Moreover, there are even bulletproof walls and lead-lined walls, which are designed to withstand the lethal force of guns, radiation, and bombs. In a related manner, the technology of thin bulletproof vests has also evolved. Military personnel now have vests that are much more resistant/protective than those worn by regular city law enforcement employees. Military personnel can now withstand even more types of bullets, which are shot from powerful guns at a closer range.

    Accordingly, bacteria have often evolved in a similar style. Bacterium with certain protective mutations often survive the onslaught of antibiotics, and then subsequently reproduce offspring with these same defensive characteristics. Thus, an individual or a population can experience an outbreak of super bacteria that are more “fireproof," “mold proof,” and “bulletproof” to antibiotics.

    Therefore, there is a great need to coach people into adopting holistic, healthy lifestyles. A holistic health lifestyle includes features such as consuming organic fruits and vegetables, choosing proper herbal and nutritional supplements, and regular exercise. These practices can increase the body’s natural immunities, and help people to resist illness without relying on antibiotics. One of the best ways to fight gram-positive and gram-negative bacterial outbreaks is to prevent them from occurring in the first place!

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