The bacteria genus Mycobacterium belongs to the family Mycobacteriaceae. More than 150 species are now identified for Mycobacterium, including pathogens that are capable to cause serious diseases such as tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae). Most species of Mycobacterium are aerobic and non-motile bacteria (except for Mycobacterium marinum, which can be motile inside the macrophages.) that are characteristically acid fast. They do not have capsules, and neither do they form endospores in most cases. The cell walls of Mycobacterium species are hydrophobic, usually thicker than that of other bacteria, and are rich in mycolic acids/mycolates. The hydrophobic mycolate layer and a peptidoglycan layer that is held together by arabinogalactan form the cell wall, which provide a substantial contribution to the hardiness of Mycobacterium species. Mycobacterium is widespread in natural environments, especially in water and food resources.
Fig.1 Scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Mycobacteria can be further catalogued into three groups: Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex, nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) and Mycobacterium leprae. Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex contains several species that may cause tuberculosis, including M. tuberculosis, M. bovis, M. canettii, M. pinnipedii... etc. Mycobacterium leprae causes leprosy, a chronic infectious disease. The rest species belong to nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), also known as atypical or ubiquitous mycobacteria, which contains more than 150 species. NTM can be found ubiquitously in nature and can be cultivated on common liquid and solid culture media. According to their growth rate and production of pigments, NTM can be divided into four groups. Mycobacteria infect their hosts without causing any adverse signs or symptoms. Thus it is widely known that the infection of Mycobacteria is difficult to treat. Due to the unique structure of the cell wall, Mycobacteria can survive for a quite long time when exposure to acids, detergents, alkalis, oxidative bursts, lysis by complement and many antibiotics.
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