Bacterial physiology is the study of the structures and functions that allow bacteria to survive. This includes everything from the composition of bacterial cell walls to the enzymes they can produce to perform various internal and external functions. Researchers in this field can work in lab environments, researching known organisms as well as learning more about new bacteria. Pharmaceutical companies, environmental agencies, and numerous other organizations have use for bacterial physiologists.
Bacteria are extremely diverse, and part of the work of bacterial physiology involves the development of meaningful categories to divide them into for classification and research purposes. For example, researchers may split organisms into Gram positive and negative bacteria by how they react to a Gram stain. Likewise, they can be divided into anaerobic bacteria that don't need oxygen to survive, aerobic bacteria, and organisms that can switch back and forth and don't need an exclusively oxygenated or deoxygenated environment. Bacteria may also exhibit varying degrees of motility and other characteristics that can help researchers identify them.
Researchers in bacterial physiology look at bacterial genetics and how bacteria respond to evolutionary pressures. They sequence and study the enzymes produced by bacteria. This includes structures necessary for cellular functions like division as well as bacterial enzymes that may be released into the surrounding environment. Some of these are toxic and can play a role in bacterial infections and contamination. Some focus specifically on infectious disease and the interactions between bacteria and other organisms.
Other researchers may explore topics like symbiosis, where bacteria live together or with other organisms for mutual benefits. Some lichens, for example, have bacteria as symbiotic partners to supply energy to the organism so it can grow and reproduce. Other bacteria may live parasitically on other organisms and can rely on them for nutritional support. Some of these parasites provide benefits in return, like the organisms in the digestive tract that assist with digestion, while others may turn on their hosts and cause disease.
Students with an interest in bacterial physiology will need to take biology courses and pursue training in bacteria specifically. Many people in this field have advanced degrees and research credits. Employment prospects are quite variable. The location where a scientist wants to work can make a difference, as can the area of specialty. Researchers who work on topics like using bacteria to make pharmaceuticals may make more than people doing basic research in bacterial physiology, for instance.