December 17, 1997

Studies Suggest a Darker Side of 'Benign' Microbes

JAMA. 1997;278(23):2051-2052. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03550230027009

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NEW TECHNIQUES for diagnosing mycoplasma infections combined with rigorous culture and serologie methods are transforming long-standing perceptions of the tiny organisms as agents of mild and self-limiting illness to something more troubling.

Evidence mounting in the past few years is prompting a réévaluation of mycoplasmata, the smallest free-living organisms, microbiologist Gail H. Cassell, PhD, told researchers and clinicians who met in Toronto, Ontario, for the 37th Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC). Studies are revealing that members of this family of microorganisms, long pigeonholed as relatively benign pathogens, apparently cause a variety of illnesses, including pneumonia—both mild and severe—far more often than previously thought.

Low-Profile Microbes  One reason that the potential of the mycoplasmata for causing more severe disease has been underappreciated is that these fastidious microbes are difficult to grow and work with in the laboratory. This has meant that efforts to determine whether a patient had