What is Sphingomonas?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

While usually easily treatable, sphingomonas infection in someone with a compromised immune system may be much more dangerous.
While usually easily treatable, sphingomonas infection in someone with a compromised immune system may be much more dangerous.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I know you guys are talking about this bacteria in soil and all, but what about the rare human infections like me?

I'm a 23 year old female, and I've been on antibiotics meant to clear this up and it hasn't cleared. No local doctor doesn't knows what to do besides keep prescribing antibiotics. (and no I'm not diabetic, and no I haven't been to any hospitals.)

And there are very few web responses to anything on this. The one I have is Sphingomonas paucimobilis, and do forgive me if I sound like I'm rambling. I'm just scared.


@MrMoody - I don’t think that you need to genetically engineer it to get that result. Biosynthesis is one of the ways they use it, and I think it could be adapted to treating the soil the way that you’ve described.

Usually there are less exotic ways of amending the soil, which is what you’re describing, than engineering the bacteria. Typically people just dump a bunch of fertilizer down. That’s what I did, anyway, and my grass grew like weeds (so did the weeds, for that matter).

But perhaps you could mix the bacteria into the fertilizer in soil samples that are particularly resistant to standard treatments and get a better response.


@hamje32 - I’d like to know if there’s some way to use this bacteria to put something good back into the environment, rather than just rendering the bad stuff neutral.

For example, the article says that it can grow in nutrient poor soil. Would it be possible to genetically engineer the bacteria so that it puts good nutrients back into the soil?

It may be a stretch, but I think that such a sphingomonas paucimobilis treatment would make it useful in many parts of the world where the soil is not rich enough to grow plant food.


I think that using bacteria in biodegradation holds great possibility for dealing with environmental problems.

I imagine for example that you could possibly use this kind of bacteria to clean up chemical waste dumps created by the disposal of pharmaceutical drugs.

This is a big problem as many recycling facilities cannot handle medical waste disposal. Perhaps we could let loose a horde of sphingomonas bacteria on the biomedical waste and it would render all of it harmless.

Maybe that’s already been done, I don’t know; it’s just the first thing that comes to mind since I know that medical waste disposal is an ongoing environmental concern.

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