Soil Actinomycetes

  • Author: Thomas Loynachan 1
    Affiliations: 1: Iowa State University, Ames, IA, 50011-1010
  • Citation: Thomas Loynachan. 2008. Soil actinomycetes.
  • Publication Date : June 2008
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Actinomycetes is a nontaxonomic term for a group of common soil microorganisms sometimes called "thread or ray bacteria." They are known for decomposing more resistant organic materials such as chitin, a complex sugar found in the outer skeleton of insects and elsewhere. Actinomycetes are simple prokaryotic organisms that are gram positive, have a high G+C base composition, and are mycelium (thread) forming. Nucleic materials (DNA) consist of a helical structure with a sugar backbone attached through the bases adenine thymine (A+T) and guanine cytosine (G+C). Compared with the DNA of other organisms, actinomycetes have a high percentage of guanine cytosine bases. In growth habit, many actinomycetes resemble fungi but are smaller, and terms common to both are used to describe morphological features. The most common genus of actinomycetes in soil is Streptomyces that produces straight chains or coils of spores or conidia. At 1,000x magnification, the round conidia making up the coils can be seen in the video. More than one-half of the antibiotics used in human medicine, including aureomycin, chloromycetin, kanamycin, neomycin, streptomycin, and terramycin, come from soil actinomycetes. The smell of freshly turned soil is due to metabolic end products called geosmins that are produced by these organisms and move through soil as unseen volatiles.   A downloadable, high-resolution version of this video is available at  http://www.agron.iastate.edu/~loynachan/mov/.


The actinomycetes were grown at room temperature on a low-energy medium from a dilution of an Iowa soil. These organisms are slow-growing so most cultures are more than 2 weeks old. The video was captured with bright-field microscopy and captions added using Adobe Premiere.


Dindal, D. L. 1990. Soil biology guide. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.

Sylvia, D. M., J. J. Fuhrmann, P. G. Hartel, and D. A. Zuberer. 2005. Principles and applications of soil microbiology. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.


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