Preprint Review Version 1 This version is not peer-reviewed

Mycobacterium abscessus: Environmental Bacterium Turned Clinical Nightmare

Version 1 : Received: 27 January 2019 / Approved: 28 January 2019 / Online: 28 January 2019 (10:05:28 CET)

How to cite: Lopeman, R.C.; Harrison, J.; Desai, M.; Cox, J.A.G. Mycobacterium abscessus: Environmental Bacterium Turned Clinical Nightmare. Preprints 2019, 2019010273 (doi: 10.20944/preprints201901.0273.v1). Lopeman, R.C.; Harrison, J.; Desai, M.; Cox, J.A.G. Mycobacterium abscessus: Environmental Bacterium Turned Clinical Nightmare. Preprints 2019, 2019010273 (doi: 10.20944/preprints201901.0273.v1).


Mycobacteria are a large family of over 100 species, most of which do not cause diseases in humans. The majority of the mycobacterial species are referred to as nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), meaning they are not the causative agent of tuberculous (TB) or leprosy, i.e. Mycobacterium tuberculous complex and Mycobacterium leprae, respectively. The latter group is undoubtedly the most infamous, with TB infecting an estimated 10 million people and causing over 1.2 million deaths in 2017 alone (1). TB and leprosy also differ from NTM in that they are only transmitted from person to person and have no environmental reservoir, whereas NTM infections are commonly acquired from the environment (2) (3). It took until the 1950's for NTM to be recognised as a potential lung pathogen in people with underlying pulmonary disease and another 3 decades for NTM to be widely recognised by the medical community when NTM, particularly Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) was recognised as the most common group of opportunistic pathogens in AIDS patients (4). This review focusses on an emerging NTM called Mycobacterium abscessus (M. abs). M. abs is a rapidly growing (RGM) NTM that is responsible for opportunistic pulmonary infections in patients with structural lung disorders such as cystic fibrosis (CF) and bronchiectasis (5), as well as a wide range of skin and soft tissue infections (SSTIs) in humans (6) (7). M. abs is a weakly staining Gram-positive mycobacterium that is neverand is, like other NTM, most often seen in soil and aquatic environments (8). The bacillus-shaped bacterium is 1-6µm long and 0.2-0.5µm in diameter, with curved ends and the presence of cord factor, or trehalose 6-6'-dimycolate, a glycolipid found in the cell wall of virulent species of mycobacteria that results in "serpentine cord" cell morphology is sometimes observed (8) (9). On solid growth medium, M. abs can display either a rough (M. abs-R) or smooth (M. abs-S) morphotype, with the rough morphotype displaying a more virulent phenotype than its smooth variant (10). The rough morphotype is characterised by irregular parallel filaments that form ridges across the colony, whereas a smooth morphology is displays a wet, smooth colony with no filaments or ridges (79). This morphology is driven by cell wall glycopeptidolipid (GPL); a loss of GPL results in the reversion from rough to smooth morphotype (80) (81). Moreover, it has been shown using human tissue culture models of infection that M. abs-R is able to persist and multiply within the host macrophage whereas M. abs-S lacks this capacity, hence its role in virulence (82). Like all other mycobacteria, M. abs are aerobic, non-motile and acid-fast organisms with a characteristically thick, lipid-rich cell wall that is hydrophobic. Due to their unusually impermeable, thick cell wall, mycobacteria are notoriously resistant to many antibiotics, disinfectants and heavy metals (11). When the genome of M. abs became available in 2009, elucidation of the resistance mechanisms of M. abs became an area of focus for scientific research, as the considerable threat it poses to public health became more apparent (12) (13) (14). In this review we will discuss how we came to understand the pathogen, how it is currently treated, as well as a discussion of drug resistance mechanisms and novel treatments currently in development.

Subject Areas

Mycobacterium abscessus; non-tuberculous mycobacteria; antimicrobial drug discovery; cystic fibrosis

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