Hans Martin, professor emeritus, Technical University Darmstadt, Germany, reflects on the mysteries of L-forms, strains of bacteria that lack cell walls.
"L-forms are bacterial variants with defective cell walls and irregular growth and multiplication. They arise after peptidoglycan, the exoskeleton of the bacterial cell wall, has been either degraded by bacteriolytic enzymes, or its biosynthesis has been disturbed by antibiotics and other inhibitors, or by defect mutations in essential genes for cell wall synthesis. L-forms with different degrees of wall defects can arise. International experts, headed by nobelist Sidney Brenner, recognized the need to distinguish between entirely cell wall-less protoplasts, surrounded only by a cytoplasmic membrane, and spheroplasts with residual, fragile cell walls. L-forms were discovered in 1935 by Emmy Klieneberger and subsequently described by many authors (examples here and here). Much interest in L-forms arose from their assumed but still unconfirmed roles as concealed pathogens and as survivors of antibiotic action. They are also useful tools for the study of basic mechanisms of cell biology, such as cell division. Yet, as justly deplored in a recent review, L-forms are still "unfamiliar to many microbiologists" and are often regarded "with scepticism." One hears complaints about the unusually labor-intensive and time-consuming process of L-form isolation and cultivation, and the uncertain outcome. However, in my experience, this can be overcome by patient determination."