Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of microrevMicrobiol Mol Biol Rev ArchivePermissionsJournals.ASM.orgMMBR ArticleJournal InfoAuthorsReviewers
Microbiol Rev. 1994 March; 58(1): 94–144.
PMCID: PMC372955

Gas vesicles.


The gas vesicle is a hollow structure made of protein. It usually has the form of a cylindrical tube closed by conical end caps. Gas vesicles occur in five phyla of the Bacteria and two groups of the Archaea, but they are mostly restricted to planktonic microorganisms, in which they provide buoyancy. By regulating their relative gas vesicle content aquatic microbes are able to perform vertical migrations. In slowly growing organisms such movements are made more efficiently than by swimming with flagella. The gas vesicle is impermeable to liquid water, but it is highly permeable to gases and is normally filled with air. It is a rigid structure of low compressibility, but it collapses flat under a certain critical pressure and buoyancy is then lost. Gas vesicles in different organisms vary in width, from 45 to > 200 nm; in accordance with engineering principles the narrower ones are stronger (have higher critical pressures) than wide ones, but they contain less gas space per wall volume and are therefore less efficient at providing buoyancy. A survey of gas-vacuolate cyanobacteria reveals that there has been natural selection for gas vesicles of the maximum width permitted by the pressure encountered in the natural environment, which is mainly determined by cell turgor pressure and water depth. Gas vesicle width is genetically determined, perhaps through the amino acid sequence of one of the constituent proteins. Up to 14 genes have been implicated in gas vesicle production, but so far the products of only two have been shown to be present in the gas vesicle: GvpA makes the ribs that form the structure, and GvpC binds to the outside of the ribs and stiffens the structure against collapse. The evolution of the gas vesicle is discussed in relation to the homologies of these proteins.

Full text

Full text is available as a scanned copy of the original print version. Get a printable copy (PDF file) of the complete article (15M), or click on a page image below to browse page by page. Links to PubMed are also available for Selected References.

Images in this article

Selected References

These references are in PubMed. This may not be the complete list of references from this article.
  • Abeliovich A, Shilo M. Photooxidative death in blue-green algae. J Bacteriol. 1972 Sep;111(3):682–689. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Adams DG, Carr NG. The developmental biology of heterocyst and akinete formation in cyanobacteria. Crit Rev Microbiol. 1981;9(1):45–100. [PubMed]
  • Blakemore RP. Magnetotactic bacteria. Annu Rev Microbiol. 1982;36:217–238. [PubMed]
  • Blaseio U, Pfeifer F. Transformation of Halobacterium halobium: development of vectors and investigation of gas vesicle synthesis. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1990 Sep;87(17):6772–6776. [PubMed]
  • Blaurock AE, Walsby AE. Crystalline structure of the gas vesicle wall from Anabaena flos-aquae. J Mol Biol. 1976 Aug 5;105(2):183–199. [PubMed]
  • Blaurock AE, Wober W. Structure of the wall of Halobacterium halobium gas vesicles. J Mol Biol. 1976 Sep 25;106(3):871–878. [PubMed]
  • Bomar D, Giovannoni S, Stackebrandt E. A unique type of eubacterial 5S rRNA in members of the order Planctomycetales. J Mol Evol. 1988;27(2):121–125. [PubMed]
  • Bowen CC, Jensen TE. Blue-Green Algae: Fine Structure of the Gas Vacuoles. Science. 1965 Mar 19;147(3664):1460–1462. [PubMed]
  • Buchholz BE, Hayes PK, Walsby AE. The distribution of the outer gas vesicle protein, GvpC, on the Anabaena gas vesicle, and its ratio to GvpA. J Gen Microbiol. 1993 Oct;139(10):2353–2363. [PubMed]
  • Buckland B, Walsby AE. A study of the strength and stability of gas vesicles isolated from a blue-green alga. Arch Mikrobiol. 1971;79(4):327–337. [PubMed]
  • Caldwell DE, Tiedje JM. A morphological study of anaerobic bacteria from the hypolimnia of two Michigan lakes. Can J Microbiol. 1975 Mar;21(3):362–376. [PubMed]
  • Caldwell DE, Tiedje JM. The structure of anaerobic bacterial communities in the hypolimnia of several Michigan lakes. Can J Microbiol. 1975 Mar;21(3):377–385. [PubMed]
  • Cohen-Bazire G, Kunisawa R, Pfennig N. Comparative study of the structure of gas vacuoles. J Bacteriol. 1969 Nov;100(2):1049–1061. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Csiszàr K, Houmard J, Damerval T, Tandeau de Marsac N. Transcriptional analysis of the cyanobacterial gvpABC operon in differentiated cells: occurrence of an antisense RNA complementary to three overlapping transcripts. Gene. 1987;60(1):29–37. [PubMed]
  • Damerval T, Castets AM, Guglielmi G, Houmard J, Tandeau de Marsac N. Occurrence and distribution of gas vesicle genes among cyanobacteria. J Bacteriol. 1989 Mar;171(3):1445–1452. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Damerval T, Castets AM, Houmard J, Tandeau de Marsac N. Gas vesicle synthesis in the cyanobacterium Pseudanabaena sp.: occurrence of a single photoregulated gene. Mol Microbiol. 1991 Mar;5(3):657–664. [PubMed]
  • Damerval T, Guglielmi G, Houmard J, De Marsac NT. Hormogonium Differentiation in the Cyanobacterium Calothrix: A Photoregulated Developmental Process. Plant Cell. 1991 Feb;3(2):191–201. [PubMed]
  • Damerval T, Houmard J, Guglielmi G, Csiszar K, Tandeau de Marsac N. A developmentally regulated gvpABC operon is involved in the formation of gas vesicles in the cyanobacterium Calothrix 7601. Gene. 1987;54(1):83–92. [PubMed]
  • DasSarma S, Damerval T, Jones JG, Tandeau de Marsac N. A plasmid-encoded gas vesicle protein gene in a halophilic archaebacterium. Mol Microbiol. 1987 Nov;1(3):365–370. [PubMed]
  • Datta P. Regulation of branched biosynthetic pathways in bacteria. Science. 1969 Aug 8;165(3893):556–562. [PubMed]
  • Devereux J, Haeberli P, Smithies O. A comprehensive set of sequence analysis programs for the VAX. Nucleic Acids Res. 1984 Jan 11;12(1 Pt 1):387–395. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Doetsch RN, Sjoblad RD. Flagellar structure and function in eubacteria. Annu Rev Microbiol. 1980;34:69–108. [PubMed]
  • Dubelaar GB, Visser JW, Donze M. Anomalous behaviour of forward and perpendicular light scattering of a cyanobacterium owing to intracellular gas vacuoles. Cytometry. 1987 Jul;8(4):405–412. [PubMed]
  • DUYSENS LN. The flattening of the absorption spectrum of suspensions, as compared to that of solutions. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1956 Jan;19(1):1–12. [PubMed]
  • Easterbrook KB, Willison JH, Coombs RW. Arrangement of morphological subunits in bacterial spinae. Can J Microbiol. 1976 May;22(5):619–629. [PubMed]
  • Englert C, Horne M, Pfeifer F. Expression of the major gas vesicle protein gene in the halophilic archaebacterium Haloferax mediterranei is modulated by salt. Mol Gen Genet. 1990 Jul;222(2-3):225–232. [PubMed]
  • Englert C, Krüger K, Offner S, Pfeifer F. Three different but related gene clusters encoding gas vesicles in halophilic archaea. J Mol Biol. 1992 Sep 20;227(2):586–592. [PubMed]
  • Englert C, Pfeifer F. Analysis of gas vesicle gene expression in Haloferax mediterranei reveals that GvpA and GvpC are both gas vesicle structural proteins. J Biol Chem. 1993 May 5;268(13):9329–9336. [PubMed]
  • Englert C, Wanner G, Pfeifer F. Functional analysis of the gas vesicle gene cluster of the halophilic archaeon Haloferax mediterranei defines the vac-region boundary and suggests a regulatory role for the gvpD gene or its product. Mol Microbiol. 1992 Dec;6(23):3543–3550. [PubMed]
  • Falkenberg P, Buckland B, Walsby AE. Chemical composition of gas vesicles isolated from Anabaena flos-aquae. Arch Mikrobiol. 1972;85(4):304–309. [PubMed]
  • Gallione CJ, Rose JK. A single amino acid substitution in a hydrophobic domain causes temperature-sensitive cell-surface transport of a mutant viral glycoprotein. J Virol. 1985 May;54(2):374–382. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Giovannoni SJ, Turner S, Olsen GJ, Barns S, Lane DJ, Pace NR. Evolutionary relationships among cyanobacteria and green chloroplasts. J Bacteriol. 1988 Aug;170(8):3584–3592. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Glazer AN. Light harvesting by phycobilisomes. Annu Rev Biophys Biophys Chem. 1985;14:47–77. [PubMed]
  • Gorlenko VM, Lebedeva EV. Novye zelenye serobakterii s vyrostami. Mikrobiologiia. 1971 Nov-Dec;40(6):1035–1039. [PubMed]
  • Gorlenko VM, Lokk SI. Vertikal'noe raspredelenie i osobennosti vidovogo sostava mikroorganizmov nekotorykh stratifitsirovannykh ozer Estonii. Mikrobiologiia. 1979 Mar-Apr;48(2):351–359. [PubMed]
  • Griffiths AE, Walsby AE, Hayes PK. The homologies of gas vesicle proteins. J Gen Microbiol. 1992 Jun;138(6):1243–1250. [PubMed]
  • Häder DP. Photosensory behavior in procaryotes. Microbiol Rev. 1987 Mar;51(1):1–21. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Halladay JT, Jones JG, Lin F, MacDonald AB, DasSarma S. The rightward gas vesicle operon in Halobacterium plasmid pNRC100: identification of the gvpA and gvpC gene products by use of antibody probes and genetic analysis of the region downstream of gvpC. J Bacteriol. 1993 Feb;175(3):684–692. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Harold FM. To shape a cell: an inquiry into the causes of morphogenesis of microorganisms. Microbiol Rev. 1990 Dec;54(4):381–431. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Hayes PK, Buchholz B, Walsby AE. Gas vesicles are strengthened by the outer-surface protein, GvpC. Arch Microbiol. 1992;157(3):229–234. [PubMed]
  • Hayes PK, Lazarus CM, Bees A, Walker JE, Walsby AE. The protein encoded by gvpC is a minor component of gas vesicles isolated from the cyanobacteria Anabaena flos-aquae and Microcystis sp. Mol Microbiol. 1988 Sep;2(5):545–552. [PubMed]
  • Hayes PK, Walsby AE, Walker JE. Complete amino acid sequence of cyanobacterial gas-vesicle protein indicates a 70-residue molecule that corresponds in size to the crystallographic unit cell. Biochem J. 1986 May 15;236(1):31–36. [PubMed]
  • Hemmingsen BB, Hemmingsen EA. Rupture of the cell envelope by induced intracellular gas phase expansion in gas vacuolate bacteria. J Bacteriol. 1980 Aug;143(2):841–846. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Hirsch P, Pankratz SH. Study of bacterial populations in natural environments by use of submerged electron microscope grids. Z Allg Mikrobiol. 1970;10(8):589–605. [PubMed]
  • Horne M, Englert C, Pfeifer F. Two genes encoding gas vacuole proteins in Halobacterium halobium. Mol Gen Genet. 1988 Aug;213(2-3):459–464. [PubMed]
  • Horne M, Englert C, Wimmer C, Pfeifer F. A DNA region of 9 kbp contains all genes necessary for gas vesicle synthesis in halophilic archaebacteria. Mol Microbiol. 1991 May;5(5):1159–1174. [PubMed]
  • Horne M, Pfeifer F. Expression of two gas vacuole protein genes in Halobacterium halobium and other related species. Mol Gen Genet. 1989 Sep;218(3):437–444. [PubMed]
  • Jones DD, Haug A, Jost M, Graber DR. Ultrastructural and conformational changes in gas vacuole membranes isolated from Microcystis aeruginosa. Arch Biochem Biophys. 1969 Dec;135(1):296–303. [PubMed]
  • Jones DD, Jost M. Isolation and chemical characterization of gas-vacuole membranes from Microcystis aeruginosa Kuetz. emend. Elenkin. Arch Mikrobiol. 1970;70(1):43–64. [PubMed]
  • Jones JG, Hackett NR, Halladay JT, Scothorn DJ, Yang CF, Ng WL, DasSarma S. Analysis of insertion mutants reveals two new genes in the pNRC100 gas vesicle gene cluster of Halobacterium halobium. Nucleic Acids Res. 1989 Oct 11;17(19):7785–7793. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Jost M, Jones DD. Morphological parameters and macromolecular organization of gas vacuole membranes of Microcystis aeruginosa Kuetz. emend. Elenkin. Can J Microbiol. 1970 Mar;16(3):159–164. [PubMed]
  • Jost M, Jones DD, Weathers PJ. Counting of gas vacuoles by electron microscopy in lysates and purified fractions of Microcystis aeruginosa. Protoplasma. 1971;73(3):329–335. [PubMed]
  • Klemer AR, Feuillade J, Feuillade M. Cyanobacterial blooms: carbon and nitrogen limitation have opposite effects on the buoyancy of oscillatoria. Science. 1982 Mar 26;215(4540):1629–1631. [PubMed]
  • Koch AL. The protein burden of lac operon products. J Mol Evol. 1983;19(6):455–462. [PubMed]
  • Koch AL, Pinette MF. Nephelometric determination of turgor pressure in growing gram-negative bacteria. J Bacteriol. 1987 Aug;169(8):3654–3663. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Konopka AE. Inhibition of gas vesicle production in Microcyclus aquaticus by L-lysine. Can J Microbiol. 1977 Apr;23(4):363–368. [PubMed]
  • Konopka AE, Lara JC, Staley JT. Isolation and characterization of gas vesicles from Microcyclus aquaticus. Arch Microbiol. 1977 Mar 1;112(2):133–140. [PubMed]
  • Konopka AE, Staley JT, Lara JC. Gas vesicle assembly in Microcyclus aquaticus. J Bacteriol. 1975 Jun;122(3):1301–1309. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Krantz MJ, Ballou CE. Analysis of Halobacterium halobium gas vesicles. J Bacteriol. 1973 Jun;114(3):1058–1067. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Krasil'nikov NA, Duda VI. Ul'trastruktura kolpachkov na sporakh anaéorbnykh bakterii. Dokl Akad Nauk SSSR. 1968 Apr 1;179(4):970–973. [PubMed]
  • Lakowicz JR, Weber G. Quenching of protein fluorescence by oxygen. Detection of structural fluctuations in proteins on the nanosecond time scale. Biochemistry. 1973 Oct 9;12(21):4171–4179. [PubMed]
  • Larsen H, Omang S, Steensland H. On the gas vacuoles of the halobacteria. Arch Mikrobiol. 1967;59(1):197–203. [PubMed]
  • Marr AG. Growth rate of Escherichia coli. Microbiol Rev. 1991 Jun;55(2):316–333. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Meister M, Lowe G, Berg HC. The proton flux through the bacterial flagellar motor. Cell. 1987 Jun 5;49(5):643–650. [PubMed]
  • Chenvechai C, Irarrazaval MJ, Loop FD, Effler DB, Rincon G, Sones FM., Jr Aorta-coronary bypass grafting with the internal mammary artery: clinical experience in 70 patients. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 1975 Aug;70(2):278–281. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Pfeifer F, Blaseio U, Horne M. Genome structure of Halobacterium halobium: plasmid dynamics in gas vacuole deficient mutants. Can J Microbiol. 1989 Jan;35(1):96–100. [PubMed]
  • Pfeifer F, Englert C. Function and biosynthesis of gas vesicles in halophilic Archaea. J Bioenerg Biomembr. 1992 Dec;24(6):577–585. [PubMed]
  • Pfeifer F, Weidinger G, Goebel W. Characterization of plasmids in halobacteria. J Bacteriol. 1981 Jan;145(1):369–374. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Pfennig N, cohen-Bazire G. Some properties of the green bacterium Pelodictyon clathratiforme. Arch Mikrobiol. 1967;59(1):226–236. [PubMed]
  • Pinette MF, Koch AL. Turgor pressure responses of a gram-negative bacterium to antibiotic treatment, measured by collapse of gas vesicles. J Bacteriol. 1988 Mar;170(3):1129–1136. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Porter J, Jost M. Physiological effects of the presence and absence of gas vacuoles in the blue-green alga, Microcystis aeruginosa Kuetz. emend. Elenkin. Arch Microbiol. 1976 Nov 2;110(23):225–231. [PubMed]
  • Powell RS, Walsby AE, Hayes PK, Porter R. Antibodies to the N-terminal sequence of GVPa bind to the ends of gas vesicles. J Gen Microbiol. 1991 Oct;137(10):2395–2400. [PubMed]
  • Simon RD. Halobacterium strain 5 contains a plasmid which is correlated with the presence of gas vacuoles. Nature. 1978 May 25;273(5660):314–317. [PubMed]
  • Smith RV, Peat A, Bailey CJ. The isolation and characterisation of gas-cylinder membranes and alpha-granules from Anabaena flos-aquae D 124. Arch Mikrobiol. 1969;65(2):87–97. [PubMed]
  • Staley JT. Prosthecomicrobium and Ancalomicrobium: new prosthecate freshwater bacteria. J Bacteriol. 1968 May;95(5):1921–1942. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Jamieson AT, Macnab JC, Perbal B, Clements JB. Virus specified enzyme activity and RNA species in herpes simplex virus type 1 transformed mouse cells. J Gen Virol. 1976 Sep;32(3):493–508. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Stoeckenius W. Walsby's square bacterium: fine structure of an orthogonal procaryote. J Bacteriol. 1981 Oct;148(1):352–360. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Toeckenius W, Kunau WH. Further characterization of particulate fractions from lysed cell envelopes of Halobacterium halobium and isolation of gas vacuole membranes. J Cell Biol. 1968 Aug;38(2):337–357. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Surek B, Pillay B, Rdest U, Beyreuther K, Goebel W. Evidence for two different gas vesicle proteins and genes in Halobacterium halobium. J Bacteriol. 1988 Apr;170(4):1746–1751. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Tandeau de Marsac N, Mazel D, Bryant DA, Houmard J. Molecular cloning and nucleotide sequence of a developmentally regulated gene from the cyanobacterium Calothrix PCC 7601: a gas vesicle protein gene. Nucleic Acids Res. 1985 Oct 25;13(20):7223–7236. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Tomasselli AG, Mast E, Janes W, Schiltz E. The complete amino acid sequence of adenylate kinase from baker's yeast. Eur J Biochem. 1986 Feb 17;155(1):111–119. [PubMed]
  • Nakamura K, Oliver C, Stadtman ER. Inactivation of glutamine synthetase by a purified rabbit liver microsomal cytochrome P-450 system. Arch Biochem Biophys. 1985 Jul;240(1):319–329. [PubMed]
  • Van Baalen C, Brown RM., Jr The ultrastructure of the marine blue green alga, Trichodesmium erythraeum, with special reference to the cell wall, gas vacuoles, and cylindrical bodies. Arch Mikrobiol. 1969;69(1):79–91. [PubMed]
  • Van Ert M, Staley JT. A new gas vacuolated heterotrophic rod from freshwaters. Arch Mikrobiol. 1971;80(1):70–77. [PubMed]
  • Van Ert M, Staley JT. Gas-vacuolated strains of Microcyclus aquaticus. J Bacteriol. 1971 Oct;108(1):236–240. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Waaland JR, Branton D. Gas vacuole development in a blue-green alga. Science. 1969 Mar 21;163(3873):1339–1341. [PubMed]
  • Waaland JR, Waaland SD, Branton D. Gas vacuoles. Light shielding in blue-green algae. J Cell Biol. 1971 Jan;48(1):212–215. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Walker JE, Walsby AE. Molecular weight of gas-vesicle protein from the planktonic cyanobacterium Anabaena flos-aquae and implications for structure of the vesicle. Biochem J. 1983 Mar 1;209(3):809–815. [PubMed]
  • Walsby AE. Structure and function of gas vacuoles. Bacteriol Rev. 1972 Mar;36(1):1–32. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Walsby AE, Armstrong RE. Average thickness of the gas vesicle wall in Anabaena flos-aquae. J Mol Biol. 1979 Apr 5;129(2):279–285. [PubMed]
  • Walsby AE, Hayes PK. Gas vesicle proteins. Biochem J. 1989 Dec 1;264(2):313–322. [PubMed]
  • Waterbury JB, Willey JM, Franks DG, Valois FW, Watson SW. A cyanobacterium capable of swimming motility. Science. 1985 Oct 4;230(4721):74–76. [PubMed]
  • Weathers PJ, Jost M, Lamport DT. The gas vacuole membrane of Microcystis aeruginosa. A partial amino acid sequence. Arch Biochem Biophys. 1977 Jan 15;178(1):226–244. [PubMed]
  • Weidinger G, Klotz G, Goebel W. A large plasmid from Halobacterium halobium carrying genetic information for gas vacuole formation. Plasmid. 1979 Jul;2(3):377–386. [PubMed]
  • Whitton BA, Peat A. On Oscillatoria redkei Van Goor. Arch Mikrobiol. 1969;68(4):362–376. [PubMed]
  • Widdel F, Pfennig N. A new anaerobic, sporing, acetate-oxidizing, sulfate-reducing bacterium, Desulfotomaculum (emend.) acetoxidans. Arch Microbiol. 1977 Feb 4;112(1):119–122. [PubMed]
  • Widdel F, Pfennig N. Sporulation and further nutritional characteristics of Desulfotomaculum acetoxidans. Arch Microbiol. 1981 Jul;129(5):401–402. [PubMed]
  • Woese CR. Bacterial evolution. Microbiol Rev. 1987 Jun;51(2):221–271. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Woese CR, Kandler O, Wheelis ML. Towards a natural system of organisms: proposal for the domains Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1990 Jun;87(12):4576–4579. [PubMed]
  • Zhilina TN. Tonkoe stroenie metanosartsiny. Mikrobiologiia. 1971 Jul-Aug;40(4):674–680. [PubMed]

Articles from Microbiological Reviews are provided here courtesy of American Society for Microbiology (ASM)