Actinomycetes, Actinomycetales

The term Actinomycetes is used to indicate organisms belonging to the Actinomycetales, a major subdivision of the Prokaryotae, the kingdom that comprises all organisms with a prokaryotic cell. Sometimes the name "Actinomycetes" is used restrictively for the members of the genus Actinomyces only. Actinomycetes were long regarded as fungi, as is reflected in their Greek name ("aktino" = ray, "mykes" = mushroom or fungus). The name refers to the radial arrangement of filaments in Actinomyces bovis sulfur granules.

Actinomycetes are transitional forms between bacteria and fungi, sometimes called the "higher bacteria," or filamentous bacteria. Like bacteria they possess cell walls containing muramic acid. They also have prokaryotic nuclei and are susceptible to antibiotics. But like fungi they form filaments called hyphae similar to the hyphal forms of fungi. Actinomycetes differ from fungi in the composition of cell wall; they do not have chitin and cellulose that are commonly found in the cell wall of fungi. The Actinomycetes include a wide variety of bacteria found in soil, decaying vegetation, humans and animals.1,2 Some Actinomycetes establish symbiotic nitrogen fixing association with about 200 species of plants including soapberry, alders, bitterbrush, coffee berry, Australian pine, mountain mahoganies, etc.3

Actinomycetoma, a chronic, granulomatous infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissue caused by the fungus-like Actinomycetes bacteria.
Actinomycetoma, a chronic, granulomatous infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissue caused by the fungus-like Actinomycetes bacteria

A number of Actinomycetes form close association with plants and act as growth-promoting and biocontrol agents. Some Actinomycetes form lichen-like associations with green algae called actinolichens. Though most actinomycetes are saprophytes (feeding on decaying organic material), some cause diseases in plants (e.g. potato scab, gall, and wilt) and animals. Most members of Actinomycetes are aerobic, but a few can grow under anaerobic conditions.7

Source: CDC

The order Actinomycetales includes the following families:

  • Actinomycetaceae includes important human and animal pathogens.
  • Actinospicaceae
  • Catenulisporaceae
  • Corynebacteriaceae
  • Dietziaceae
  • Gordoniaceae
  • Mycobacteriaceae family has a single genus Mycobacterium; members of this genus include bacteria that cause leprosy and tuberculosis.
  • Streptomyceteae includes species of soil bacteria; several species produce widely used antibiotics.
  • Nocardiaceae
  • Segniliparaceae
  • Tsukamurellaceae
  • Williamsiaceae
  • Acidothermaceae
  • Frankiaceae
  • Geodermatophilaceae
  • Nakamurellaceae
  • Sporichthyaceae
  • Glycomycetaceae
  • Kineosporiaceae
  • Beutenbergiaceae
  • Bogoriellaceae
  • Brevibacteriaceae
  • Cellulomonadaceae
  • Dermabacteraceae
  • Dermacoccaceae
  • Dermatophilaceae
  • Intrasporangiaceae
  • Jonesiaceae
  • Microbacteriaceae
  • Micrococcaceae
  • Promicromonosporaceae
  • Sanguibacteraceae
  • Yaniellaceae
  • Micromonosporaceae
  • Nocardioidaceae
  • Propionibacteriaceae
  • Pseudonocardiaceae
  • Nocardiopsaceae
  • Streptosporangiaceae
  • Thermomonosporaceae

Growth and Reproduction

Actinomycetes reproduce either by spore formation or hyphae fragmentation. The hyphae of Actinomycetes are much smaller than fungal hyphae, being one-fifth to one-half of fungal hyphae which often bear long chains of spores. These chains can be straight, wavy, hooked, or in tight spirals. The non-sporulating Actinomycetes in the genera Rhodococcus, Nocardia, Gordonia, Mycobacterium, and Dietzia are free-living aerobic bacteria that have broad metabolic capabilities. They can degrade to some extent even the most persistant man-made chemical compounds such as organochlorines, carbamates, and organophosphates.4 Most Actinomycetes are not motile.

Pathogenic Actinomycetes

Actinomycetes normally reside in human mouth, throat, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract without producing disease. Since the organisms cannot invade a human or animal body, they must be introduced by a deep puncture wound or trauma such as dental extraction or jaw trauma, aspiration of dental debris, surgery (removal of the appendix), or prolonged use of intrauterine devices. Actinomycetes require dead or devitalized tissue to facilitate their invasion and proliferation into deeper tissues. Establishment of human infection by Actinomycetes always requires the presence of companion bacteria. These companion bacteria help in initiation of infection by producing a toxin or an enzyme or by inhibiting host immunity. Once the infection by Actinomycetes is established, the immune system of the infected human host stimulates an intense inflammation. Bacteria from the infected site may disseminate to distant organs of the body.2 The Actinomycetes are particularly common type of bacteria found on moldy hay. Farmers may be routinely exposed to very high concentrations of Actinomyces and may inhale as many as 750,000 spores per minute. Frequent exposure to Actinomyces is the cause of Farmers Lung respiratory problems.5

Infection with Actinomycetes is called actinomycosis which is characterized by formation of abscesses. Lung infection with Nocardia species can quickly spread to the brain and skin. Nocardiosis is most common in persons with impaired immune system. Actinomycosis is not transmitted from person to person. 6

Actinomycetes are also the source of numerous antibiotics. Most of actinomycetal antibiotics used to combat plant diseases belong to the genus Streptomyces and are used as direct pesticides. Other genera also demonstrate promising biocontrol properties. Among the antibiotics obtained from Actinomycetes which are used in human and veterinary medicine are amphotericin, cyclohexymide, nystatin, and streptomycin.1

Actinomyces israelii

Actinomyces israelii is a Gram-positive anaerobic organism commonly found in periodontal area. It is also commonly associated with canaliculitis (congenital nasolacrimal duct obstruction) in adults. In children canaliculitis is relatively rare, especially in infancy. Signs include increased tear production, discharge, conjunctival congestion, and matting of lashes. A punctoplasty and canalicular curettage were performed along with nasolacrimal probing.8

Actinomyces israelii causes abdominal actinomycosis, a rare granulomatous inflammatory disease manifesting as inflammatory mass, or abscess which may be confused with cancer. Predisposing factors: intrauterine devices maintained over 10 years, foreign bodies 2 cases (a toothpick probably perforated colon, gallstones lost in peritoneum), diabetes, and immunodepression.9

Actinomycotic infections may mimic more common oral diseases or present in a similar way to malignant disease. Rarely seen in day-to-day dental practice, actinomycosis of the oral cavity is a highly significant condition due to its aggressive and locally destructive nature. Actinomyces israelii may cause orofacial actinomycosis mimicking the clinical appearance of a tumor of the upper gingiva. The bacterial colonies lead to formation of bleeding granuloma lesions which may contain pus.10 A. israelii aspirated from the oropharynx, may arrive into the lungs, and using the haematological way can spread into the heart, causing sudden death.


  1. Girish Shukla. Soil Enzymology
  2. A. Parija. Textbook of Microbiology & Immunology
  3. Vasant Gowariker, V. N. Krishnamurthy, Sudha Gowariker, Manik Dhanorkar, Kalyani Paranjape, Norman Borlaug. The Fertilizer Encyclopedia
  4. Joann K. Whalen, Luis Sampedro. Soil Ecology and Management
  5. Wladyslaw Kowalski. Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation Handbook: UVGI for Air and Surface Disinfection
  6. Raphael Rubin, David S. Strayer, Emanuel Rubin. Rubin's Pathology: clinicopathologic foundations of medicine
  7. Kamal Bouarab, Normand Brisson, Fouad Daay. Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions
  8. Indian J Ophthalmol. 2018 Apr;66(4):574-577. doi: 10.4103/ijo.IJO_1075_17.
  9. Chirurgia (Bucur). 2019 Mar-Apr;114(2):251-258. doi: 10.21614/chirurgia.114.2.251.
  10. J Dent Sci. 2018 Sep;13(3):285-288. doi: 10.1016/j.jds.2012.09.026. Epub 2013 May 2.



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