What is mycoplasma?

Mycoplasma is a bacterial genus that contains more than 100 species. Most species are harmless, but several appear to be virulent and have been linked to specific medical conditions in humans. These bacteria are extremely small, with a very basic genome that contains only the basic information necessary for life. The stripped back nature of Mycoplasma bacteria forces many of them to be parasites, because they cannot survive on their own.

These bacteria were first isolated and described in the late 19th century, although early researchers were unable to specifically identify the bacteria in their isolates. However, they knew that the isolated material they had refined in the lab contained bacteria, even if they couldn't see it, and this laid the groundwork for further investigation with better microscopes and scientific imaging devices that allowed researchers to eventually identify the bacteria.

One interesting thing about bacteria in this genus is that they don't have cell walls. Their lack of cell walls means they have a very elastic shape that can change at any given time, one of the reasons it was so difficult to isolate and confirm the presence of Mycoplasma in the lab. These bacteria are also less susceptible to many commonly used drugs, since antibiotics often target the cell wall, and Mycoplasma have no cell walls to latch onto.

These gram-negative bacteria often contaminate cell cultures in the laboratory, creating colonies with a distinctive fried-egg appearance caused by a concentration of bacteria in the middle of the colony and scattering around the edges. Seen under the microscope, the dense concentration resembles the yolk of a fried egg, while the thinner population around the edges resembles the white.

A species of Mycoplasma, M. pneumoniae , causes atypical pneumonia, also known as walking pneumonia. Other species have been linked to pelvic inflammatory disease, more general respiratory infections, and various chronic diseases. Unusually high numbers of Mycoplasma bacteria have been seen in people with conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, suggesting that bacteria may be playing a role in the condition. Some research has also implicated the bacteria in autoimmune disorders.

Although these bacteria are not as vulnerable to antibiotics as one would like, there are several drugs that can be used to treat Mycoplasma infection with great success. In a mild infection, the body often fights the bacteria on its own, requiring little support. For more severe infections, a variety of antibiotics are available.

Go up