Surrounded by mycobacteria: nontuberculous mycobacteria in the human environment

J Appl Microbiol. 2009 Aug;107(2):356-67. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2672.2009.04161.x. Epub 2009 Feb 18.


A majority of the Mycobacterium species, called the nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), are natural inhabitants of natural waters, engineered water systems, and soils. As a consequence of their ubiquitous distribution, humans are surrounded by these opportunistic pathogens. A cardinal feature of mycobacterial cells is the presence of a hydrophobic, lipid-rich outer membrane. The hydrophobicity of NTM is a major determinant of aerosolization, surface adherence, biofilm-formation, and disinfectant- and antibiotic resistance. The NTM are oligotrophs, able to grow at low carbon levels [>50 microg assimilable organic carbon (AOC) l(-1)], making them effective competitors in low nutrient, and disinfected environments (drinking water). Biofilm formation and oligotrophy lead to survival, persistence, and growth in drinking water distribution systems. In addition to their role as human and animal pathogens, the widespread distribution of NTM in the environment, coupled with their ability to degrade and metabolize a variety of complex hydrocarbons including pollutants, suggests that NTM may be agents of nutrient cycling.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Disinfection / methods*
  • Environmental Microbiology*
  • Humans
  • Mycobacterium Infections, Nontuberculous / prevention & control*
  • Nontuberculous Mycobacteria / genetics
  • Nontuberculous Mycobacteria / pathogenicity
  • Nontuberculous Mycobacteria / physiology*
  • Water Supply*