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Impact Of Genotypic Studies On Mycobacterial Taxonomy: The New Mycobacteria Of The 1990s

Enrico Tortoli

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SUMMARY The advancement of genetic techniques has greatly boosted taxonomic studies in recent years. Within the genus Mycobacterium, 42 new species have been detected since 1990, most of which were grown from clinical samples. Along with species for which relatively large numbers of strains have been reported, some of the new species of mycobacteria have been detected rarely or even only once. From the phenotypic point of view, among the new taxa, chromogens exceed nonchromogens while the numbers of slowly and rapidly growing species are equivalent. Whereas conventional identification tests were usually inconclusive, an important role was played by lipid analyses and in particular by high-performance liquid chromatography. Genotypic investigations based on sequencing of 16S rRNA gene have certainly made the most important contribution. The investigation of genetic relatedness led to the redistribution of the species previously included in the classically known categories of slow and rapid growers into new groupings. Within slow growers, the intermediate branch related to Mycobacterium simiae and the cluster of organisms related to Mycobacterium terrae have been differentiated; among rapid growers, the group of thermotolerant mycobacteria has emerged. The majority of species are resistant to isoniazid and, to a lesser extent, to rifampin. Many of the new species of mycobacteria are potentially pathogenic, and there are numerous reports of their involvement in diseases. Apart from disseminated and localized diseases in immunocompromised patients, the most frequent infections in immunocompetent people involve the lungs, skin, and, in children, cervical lymph nodes. The awareness of such new mycobacteria, far from being a merely speculative exercise, is therefore important for clinicians and microbiologists.