The increasing challenge posed by multiresistant saprophytes in medical microbiology is strikingly demonstrated by the emergence of Burkholderia (formerly Pseudomonas) cepacia as an opportunist pathogen in immunocompromised patients, particularly individuals with chronic granulomatous disease and cystic fibrosis (CF). Best known previously as a phytopathogen and the cause of soft rot of onions, B. cepacia presents three major problems for the CF community: innate multiresistance to antimicrobial agents; person-to-person transmission of epidemic strains through nosocomial or social contacts; and ‘cepacia syndrome’, a fulminating fatal pneumonia, sometimes associated with septicaemia, that occurs in approximately 20% of colonised patients, including those with previously mild disease. Accumulated evidence to dispel earlier suggestions that the organism is avirulent and merely a marker of existing lung disease includes: case-controlled studies in CF patients; reports of serious infections in non-CF patients; in-vitro and in-vivo evidence that B. cepacia induces production of pro-inflammatory markers, including the major cytokine TNFa; and histopathological evidence that exposure of transgenic CF mice to B. cepacia results in pneumonia.
By the early 1990s, the use of selective culture media and DNA-based bacterial fingerprinting confirmed suspicions of epidemic person-to-person spread of B. cepacia. This evidence provided scientific justification for draconian and controversial measures for infection control, in particular, segregation of B. cepacia-colonised patients during treatment at CF centres and their exclusion from social gatherings and national conferences. Recently, molecular analyses of type strains and clinical isolates have revealed that isolates identified previously as B. cepacia belong to at least three distinct species and have increased concern regarding the reliability of current laboratory detection and identification systems. Clarification of the taxonomy of B. cepacia-like organisms and the pathogenic potential of environmental isolates remains a high priority, particularly when the organism’s antifungal and degradative properties have created interest in its potential use as a biological control agent to improve crop yields and its use for the bioremediation of contaminated soils.