Sphingomonas is a bacterial genus with at least 20 known species, and a wide variety of uses and applications. As with many members of the bacterial world, researchers are always learning more about Sphingomonas, how it survives, and where it likes to live. These bacteria are famously very hardy, and they can be found in a broad assortment of environments, illustrating their versatility and determination to thrive wherever they land.
These bacteria form colonies which are white to yellow in color. The individuals are rod shaped, and all members of this genus appear to be aerobic, requiring a supply of oxygen to survive. In gram stains, Sphingomonas appear to be gram negative.
One of the more remarkable traits of this genus is that Sphingomonas can survive in areas with minimal available nutrients. They can be found in soil and in water, and they may colonize plants, corals, and objects such as shower curtains, sinks, and door handles. Even if very little nutrition is available, the bacteria will make do, and colonies have been discovered in thriving condition in heavily polluted areas, suggesting that Sphingomonas can live on oil and a variety of toxins.
Members of this genus can be used in bioremediation, in which the bacteria are set loose on a contaminated area to clean it up. In the process of consuming the oils, toxins, and other unwanted material in the area, the bacteria convert the materials into harmless substances which are easy and safe to clean up. Bioremediation is a field of growing interest in many regions of the world, as researchers respond to toxic sites which require cleanup, and as nations recognize that many substances previously thought safe can actually be very harmful.
In addition to being used in bioremediation, these bacteria are also utilized in biosynthesis, in which they are cultured on a specific substance so that they will produce useful compounds. As when the bacteria eat toxins, when they are grown on the right substance, the enzymes inside their bodies react with their food to produce compounds which can be used in food production, pharmaceuticals, and other industries.
Some Sphingomonas species can cause infections in humans. As a general rule, the bacteria are very responsive to antibiotic therapy, and these infections are not a major cause for concern. However, people with compromised immune systems can experience more severe and sometimes dangerous infections, such as bacteremia, in which bacteria colonize the bloodstream.