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Dermatologic Manifestations of Mycobacterium Marinum Infection of the Skin

  • Author: Joslyn S Kirby, MD; Chief Editor: Dirk M Elston, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 16, 2014


Mycobacterium marinum is an atypical Mycobacterium found in salt water and fresh water. M marinum is the most common atypical Mycobacterium to cause infection in humans. Infection occurs following inoculation of a skin abrasion or puncture and manifests as a localized granuloma or sporotrichotic lymphangitis (see the image below).

Photograph of Mycobacterium marinum infection lesi Photograph of Mycobacterium marinum infection lesions.

Diagnosis and treatment are often delayed because of a lack of suspicion for mycobacterial involvement, ie, versus more common bacterial pathogens. Due to the increased use of immunosuppressants for transplant recipients and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors for a variety of conditions, infections with mycobacteria other than tuberculosis (MOTT) are increasing.



M marinum infection occurs following trauma to an extremity that is in contact with an aquarium, salt water, or marine animals such as fish or turtles. Exposure to M marinum via swimming pools is rare because most pools are chlorinated.

The pathogen is classified as a photochromagen in Runyon group 1, which means that it produces yellow pigment when cultured and exposed to light. Culture growth occurs over 7-21 days and is optimal at 25-32°C (77-89.6°F) given the organism is adapted to infect ectotherms, such as fish. When endotherms, such as humans, are infected the infection favors the cooler extremities more than central sites. Systemic infection, usually of an immunocompromised host, has been reported. This indicates that the organism is capable of adapting to grow in conditions closer to 37°C.[1]

After inoculation into the host tissues via an abrasion or other wound, the mycobacteria are phagocytosed by macrophages. Inside the macrophage, they are able to interrupt the formation of the phagolysosome, which would normally kill the organisms. The mycobacteria, however, are able escape the lysosome and can move intracellularly and extracellularly via actin-based motility. This may contribute to cell-to-cell spread.

Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) is important for the immune response against mycobacteria. Studies have demonstrated that in the absence of TNF, macrophages engulf but do not destroy the mycobacteria. Instead, the mycobacteria survive and grow, finally killing the macrophage.[2] The importance of TNF is also supported by a number of reports of infection occurring in patients treated with TNF inhibitors.[3, 4, 5]

Studies have revealed 2 pathophysiologically and genetically (ie, via amplified restriction-based polymorphism analysis) distinct populations of M marinum. One group can infect humans and causes acutely lethal disease in fish, while a second group cannot infect humans and causes chronic progressive disease in fish.

Special concerns

Utility of M marinum as an immunotherapy agent to elicit an antituberculosis response is currently being explored.[6]




United States

Infections caused by M marinum are uncommon but well described in the literature. The estimated annual incidence is 0.27 cases per 100,000 adult patients.[7] Of the more than 160 cases described, most are case reports of cutaneous infection; some report concomitant osteomyelitis, tenosynovitis, arthritis, and/or disseminated infection. Nosocomial infection has never been described.


Infection occurs worldwide, most commonly in individuals with occupational and recreational exposure to nonchlorinated fresh water or salt water.


M marinum skin infection typically remains localized and does not cause significant morbidity in patients who are immunocompetent. Cases reported in patients who are severely immunocompromised document disseminated infection involving the bone marrow and viscera with rare reports of death secondary to the infection.


No racial predilection is apparent for M marinum skin infection.


No sexual predilection has been noted for M marinum skin infection.


M marinum infection has been reported in persons of every age group; however, it appears to be rare in the pediatric population.[8]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Joslyn S Kirby, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Dermatology, Milton S Hershey Penn State Medical Center

Joslyn S Kirby, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Women's Dermatologic Society, International Society for Cutaneous Lymphomas, Pennsylvania Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


S Alison Basak, MD, MA Resident Physician, Department of Dermatology, Penn State Hershey Medical Center

S Alison Basak, MD, MA is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Association, Pennsylvania Medical Society, Women's Dermatologic Society, Pennsylvania Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Richard P Vinson, MD Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Dermatology, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Paul L Foster School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Mountain View Dermatology, PA

Richard P Vinson, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Texas Medical Association, Association of Military Dermatologists, Texas Dermatological Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lester F Libow, MD Dermatopathologist, South Texas Dermatopathology Laboratory

Lester F Libow, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatopathology, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Dirk M Elston, MD Professor and Chairman, Department of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine

Dirk M Elston, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Ellen J Kim, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

Ellen J Kim, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, Dermatology Foundation, Medical Dermatology Society, and Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Saeed Jaffer, MD, MS Assistant Clinical Professor, University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Boston Dermatology

Saeed Jaffer, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology and American Society for MOHS Surgery

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Photograph of Mycobacterium marinum infection lesions.
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