Serratia marcescens

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Serratia marcescens
Serratia marcescens.jpg
S. marcescens on an agar plate
Scientific classification
S. marcescens
Binomial name
Serratia marcescens
Bizio 1823 [1] [2]

Serratia marcescens ( /səˈrʃiəmɑːrˈsɛsɪnz/ ) [3] [ not in citation given ] is a species of rod-shaped, Gram-negative bacteria, that is also a facultative anaerobic organism, classified as an opportunistic pathogen in the family Enterobacteriaceae. It was discovered in 1819 by Bartolomeo Bizio in Padua, Italy. [4] S. marcescens is commonly involved in hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), particularly catheter-associated bacteremia, urinary tract infections, and wound infections, [5] [6] and is responsible for 1.4% of HAI cases in the United States. [7] It is commonly found in the respiratory and urinary tracts of hospitalized adults and in the gastrointestinal systems of children. Due to its abundant presence in the environment, and its preference for damp conditions, S. marcescens is commonly found growing in bathrooms (especially on tile grout, shower corners, toilet water lines, and basins), where it manifests as a pink, pink-orange, or orange discoloration and slimy film feeding off phosphorus-containing materials or fatty substances such as soap and shampoo residue.

Bacillus (shape) rod-shaped bacterium (not to be confused with the taxon Bacilli)

A bacillus or bacilliform bacterium is a rod-shaped bacterium or archaeon. Bacilli are found in many different taxonomic groups of bacteria. However, the name Bacillus, capitalized and italicized, refers to a specific genus of bacteria. The name Bacilli, capitalized but not italicized, can also refer to a less specific taxonomic group of bacteria that includes two orders, one of which contains the genus Bacillus. When the word is formatted with lowercase and not italicized, 'bacillus', it will most likely be referring to shape and not to the genus at all. Bacilliform bacteria are also often simply called rods when the bacteriologic context is clear. Sea Bacilli usually divide in the same plane and are solitary, but can combine to form diplobacilli, streptobacilli, and palisades.

Gram-negative bacteria group of bacteria that do not retain the crystal violet stain used in the Gram staining method of bacterial differentiation

Gram-negative bacteria are bacteria that do not retain the crystal violet stain used in the gram-staining method of bacterial differentiation. They are characterized by their cell envelopes, which are composed of a thin peptidoglycan cell wall sandwiched between an inner cytoplasmic cell membrane and a bacterial outer membrane.


Once established, complete eradication of the organism is often difficult, but can be accomplished by application of a bleach-based disinfectant. Rinsing and drying surfaces after use can also prevent the establishment of the bacterium by removing its food source and making the environment less hospitable.

Bleach number of chemicals which remove color, whiten, or disinfect, often via oxidation

Bleach is the generic name for any chemical product which is used industrially and domestically to whiten clothes, lighten hair color and remove stains. It often refers, specifically, to a dilute solution of sodium hypochlorite, also called "liquid bleach".

S. marcescens may also be found in environments such as dirt, supposedly "sterile" places, and the subgingival biofilm of teeth. Due to this, and because S. marcescens produces a reddish-orange tripyrrole pigment called prodigiosin, it may cause staining of the teeth. The biochemical pathway for the production of prodigiosin by S. marcescens has been characterized by analyzing what intermediates becomes accumulated in specific mutants. [8]

Prodigiosin chemical compound

Prodigiosin is the red pigment produced by many strains of the bacterium Serratia marcescens, other Gram-negative, gamma proteobacteria such as Vibrio psychroerythrus and Hahella chejuensis. It is in th prodiginines family of compounds which are produced in some Gram-negative gamma proteobacteria, as well as select Gram-positive Actinobacteria. The name prodigiosin is derived from prodigious.


S. marcescens is a motile organism and can grow in temperatures ranging from 5–40 °C and in pH levels ranging from 5 to 9. It is differentiated from other Gram-negative bacteria by its ability to perform casein hydrolysis, which allows it to produce extracellular metalloproteinases which are believed to function in cell-to-extracellular matrix interactions. Since this bacterium is a facultative anaerobe, meaning that it can grow in either the presence of oxygen (aerobic) or in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic), it is capable of nitrate reduction under anaerobic conditions. Therefore nitrate tests are positive since nitrate is generally used as the final electron acceptor rather than oxygen. S. marcescens also exhibits tyrosine hydrolysis and citrate degradation. [9] [10] Citrate is used by S. marcescens to produce pyruvic acid, thus it can rely on citrate as a carbon source and test positive for citrate utilization. [11] In identifying the organism, one may also perform a methyl red test, which determines if a microorganism performs mixed-acid fermentation. S. marcescens results in a negative test. Another determination of S. marcescens is its capability to produce lactic acid by oxidative and fermentative metabolism. Therefore, S. marcescens is lactic acid O/F+. [12]

Motility Ability to move spontaneously and actively, consuming energy in the process

Motility is the ability of an organism to move independently, using metabolic energy. This is in contrast to mobility, which describes the ability of an object to be moved. Motility is genetically determined, but may be affected by environmental factors. For instance, muscles give animals motility but the consumption of hydrogen cyanide would adversely affect muscle physiology, causing them to stiffen, leading to rigor mortis. In addition to animal locomotion, most animals are motile – the term applies to bacteria and other microorganisms, and to some multicellular organisms, as well as to some mechanisms of fluid flow in multicellular organs and tissue. Motile marine animals are commonly called free-swimming, and motile non-parasitic organisms are called free-living.

pH measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution

In chemistry, pH is a scale used to specify how acidic or basic a water-based solution is. Acidic solutions have a lower pH, while basic solutions have a higher pH. At room temperature (25 °C), pure water is neither acidic nor basic and has a pH of 7.

Casein pronounced "kay-seen" in British English, is a family of related phosphoproteins. These proteins are commonly found in mammalian milk, comprising c. 80% of the proteins in cow's milk and between 20% and 45% of the proteins in human milk. Sheep and buffalo milk have a higher casein content than other types of milk with human milk having a particularly low casein content.

TestResult [13]
Gram stain
Indole production
Methyl Red> 70% −
Citrate (Simmons)+
Hydrogen sulfide production
Urea hydrolysis> 70% −
Phenylalanine deaminase
Lysine decarboxylase+
Gelatin hydrolysis, 22 °C+
Acid from lactose
Acid from glucose+
Acid from maltose+
Acid from mannitol+
Acid from sucrose+
Nitrate reduction+ (to nitrite)
Deoxyribonuclease, 25 °C+
Pigmentsome biovars produce red
Catalase production (24h)+


The antibiogram of S. marcescens on Mueller-Hinton agar Serratia marcescens - antibiogram.jpg
The antibiogram of S. marcescens on Mueller-Hinton agar

In humans, S. marcescens can cause an opportunistic infection in several sites, [14] including the urinary tract, respiratory tract, wounds, [7] and the eye, where it may cause conjunctivitis, keratitis, endophthalmitis, and tear duct infections. [15] It is also a rare cause of endocarditis and osteomyelitis (particularly in people who use intravenous drugs recreationally), pneumonia, and meningitis. [6] [7] Most S. marcescens strains are resistant to several antibiotics because of the presence of R-factors, which are a type of plasmid that carry one or more genes that encode resistance; all are considered intrinsically resistant to ampicillin, macrolides, and first-generation cephalosporins (such as cephalexin). [6]

Opportunistic infection

An opportunistic infection is an infection caused by pathogens that take advantage of an opportunity not normally available, such as a host with a weakened immune system, an altered microbiota, or breached integumentary barriers. Many of these pathogens do not cause disease in a healthy host that has a normal immune system. However, a compromised immune system, which is seriously debilitated and has lowered resistance to infection, a penetrating injury, or a lack of competition from normal commensals presents an opportunity for the pathogen to infect.

Urinary tract infection human and animal infection

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection that affects part of the urinary tract. When it affects the lower urinary tract it is known as a bladder infection (cystitis) and when it affects the upper urinary tract it is known as kidney infection (pyelonephritis). Symptoms from a lower urinary tract include pain with urination, frequent urination, and feeling the need to urinate despite having an empty bladder. Symptoms of a kidney infection include fever and flank pain usually in addition to the symptoms of a lower UTI. Rarely the urine may appear bloody. In the very old and the very young, symptoms may be vague or non-specific.

Respiratory tract infection any number of infectious diseases involving the respiratory tract

Respiratory tract infection (RTI) refers to any of a number of infectious diseases involving the respiratory tract. An infection of this type is normally further classified as an upper respiratory tract infection or a lower respiratory tract infection. Lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, tend to be far more serious conditions than upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold.

In elkhorn coral, S. marcescens is the cause of the disease known as white pox disease. [16] In silkworms, it can also cause a lethal disease, especially in association with other pathogens. [17]

Elkhorn coral species of cnidarian

Elkhorn coral is a prominent Caribbean reef-building coral, although current populations are still struggling to recover from white band disease outbreak. This species is structurally complex with many large branches. The coral structure resembles that of elk antlers. These branches create habitats for many other reef species, such as lobsters, parrot-fish, snapper shrimps and other reef fish. Elkhorn coral colonies are incredibly fast-growing, with an average growth rate of 5 to 10 cm per year and can eventually grow up to 3.7 m (12 ft) in diameter. The color of this coral species ranges from brown to a yellowish-brown as a result of the symbiotic zooxanthellae living inside the tissue of this coral species. Zooxanthellae are a type of algae which photosynthesize to provide the coral with nutrients. The zooxanthellae are also capable of removing waste products from the coral. Historically, the majority of elkhorn coral reproduction has occurred asexually; this occurs when a branch of the coral breaks off and attaches to the substrate, forming a new colony, known as fragmentation. The degree to which local stands reproduce by fragmentation varies across the Caribbean, but on average, 50% of colonies are the result of fragmentation rather than sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction occurs once a year in August or September when coral colonies release millions of gametes by broadcast spawning.

White pox disease

White pox disease, first noted in 1996 on coral reefs near the Florida keys, is a coral disease affecting Elkhorn coral throughout the Caribbean. It causes irregular white patches or blotches on the coral that result from the loss of coral tissue. These patches distinguish white pox disease from white band disease which produces a distinctive white band where the coral skeleton has been denuded. The blotches caused by this disease are also clearly differentiated from coral bleaching and scars caused by coral-eating snails. It is very contagious, spreading to nearby coral.

In research laboratories employing Drosophila fruit flies, infection of them with S. marcescens is common. It manifests as a pink discoloration or plaque in or on larvae, pupae, or the usually starch and sugar-based food (especially when improperly prepared).

A rare clinical form of gastroenteritis occurring in early infancy caused by infection with S. marcescens. The red color of the diaper can be mistaken for hematuria (blood in the urine), which may cause unnecessary investigations by the physicians. [18]

S. marcescens causes cucurbit yellow vine disease, leading to sometimes serious losses in melon fields. [19]

Professor Jim Burritt and his students at the University of Wisconsin-Stout have discovered a new strain of S. marcescens in bee blood (haemolymph) from hives decimated by winterkill. His research findings have been published and the new strain was named sicaria, which means assassin in Latin. The professor states that S. marcescens sicaria "may contribute to the wintertime failure of honey bee colonies". [20] [21]


Possible role in medieval miracles

"Bloody bread": S. marcescens growing on bread Bloody bread - Serratia marcescens in action.JPG
"Bloody bread": S. marcescens growing on bread

Because of its red pigmentation, caused by expression of the pigment prodigiosin, [22] and its ability to grow on bread, S. marcescens has been evoked as a naturalistic explanation of medieval accounts of the "miraculous" appearance of blood on the Corporal of Bolsena. [22] This followed celebration of a mass at Bolsena in 1263, led by a Bohemian priest who had doubts concerning transubstantiation, or the turning of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during the mass. During the mass, the Eucharist appeared to bleed and each time the priest wiped away the blood, more would appear. [22] This event is celebrated in a fresco in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City, painted by Raphael. [23]


S. marcescens was discovered in 1819 by Venetian pharmacist Bartolomeo Bizio, as the cause of an episode of blood-red discoloration of polenta in the city of Padua. [24] Bizio named the organism four years later in honor of Serafino Serrati, a physicist who developed an early steamboat; the epithet marcescens (Latin for "decaying") was chosen because of the pigment's rapid deterioration (Bizio's observations led him to believe that the organism decayed into a mucilage-like substance upon reaching maturity). [25] Serratia was later renamed Monas prodigiosus and Bacillus prodigiosus before Bizio's original name was restored in the 1920s. [24]

Uses and misuse

Role in biowarfare testing

Until the 1950s, S. marcescens was erroneously believed to be a nonpathogenic "saprophyte", [7] and its reddish coloration was used in school experiments to track infections. During the Cold War, it was used as a simulant in biological warfare testing by the U.S. military, [26] which studied it in field tests as a substitute for the tularemia bacterium, which was being weaponized at the time.

On 26 and 27 September 1950, the U.S. Navy conducted a secret experiment named "Operation Sea-Spray" in which some S. marcescens was released by bursting balloons of it over urban areas of the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Although the Navy later claimed the bacteria were harmless, beginning on September 29, 11 patients at a local hospital developed very rare, serious urinary tract infections, and one of these individuals, Edward J. Nevin, died. [27] Cases of pneumonia in San Francisco also increased after S. marcescens was released. [28] [29] (That the simulant bacteria caused these infections and death has never been conclusively established. Nevin's son and grandson lost a lawsuit they brought against the government between 1981 and 1983, on the grounds that the government is immune, [30] and that the chance that the sprayed bacteria caused Nevin's death was minute. [31] The bacterium was also combined with phenol and an anthrax simulant and sprayed across south Dorset by US and UK military scientists as part of the DICE trials which ran from 1971 to 1975. [32]

Since 1950, S. marcescens has steadily increased as a cause of human infection, with many strains resistant to multiple antibiotics. [5] The first indications of problems with the influenza vaccine produced by Chiron Corporation in 2004 involved S. marcescens contamination.

Contaminated injectables

In early 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a nationwide recall of one lot of Pre-Filled Heparin Lock Flush Solution USP. [33] The heparin IV flush syringes had been found to be contaminated with S. marcescens, which resulted in patient infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed growth of S. marcescens from several unopened syringes of this product.

S. marcescens has also been linked to 19 cases in Alabama hospitals in 2011, including 10 deaths. [34] All of the patients involved were receiving total parenteral nutrition at the time, and this is being investigated as a possible source of the outbreak. [35]

Ground-water flow tracing

Because of its ability to be grown on agar plates into even, well coloured lawns, and the existence of a phage specific to S. marscecens, it has been used to trace water flows in Karst limestone systems. Known quantities of phage are injected into a fixed point in the Karst water system and the outflow of interest are monitored by conventional small-volume sampling at fixed time intervals. In the laboratory, the samples are poured onto grown S. marscecens lawns and incubated. Colourless plaques in the lawns indicate the presence of phage. The method was claimed to be sensitive at very high dilutions because of the ability to detect single phage particles. [36] [37]

See also

Related Research Articles

Bacteriophage virus that infects and replicates within bacteria

A bacteriophage, also known informally as a phage, is a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria and archaea. The term was derived from "bacteria" and the Greek φαγεῖν (phagein), "to devour". Bacteriophages are composed of proteins that encapsulate a DNA or RNA genome, and may have relatively simple or elaborate structures. Their genomes may encode as few as four genes and as many as hundreds of genes. Phages replicate within the bacterium following the injection of their genome into its cytoplasm. Bacteriophages are among the most common and diverse entities in the biosphere. Bacteriophages are ubiquitous viruses, found wherever bacteria exist. It is estimated there are more than 1031 bacteriophages on the planet, more than every other organism on Earth, including bacteria, combined.

<i>Escherichia coli</i> species of Gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium

Escherichia coli, also known as E. coli, is a Gram-negative, facultative anaerobic, rod-shaped, coliform bacterium of the genus Escherichia that is commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms (endotherms). Most E. coli strains are harmless, but some serotypes can cause serious food poisoning in their hosts, and are occasionally responsible for product recalls due to food contamination. The harmless strains are part of the normal microbiota of the gut, and can benefit their hosts by producing vitamin K2, and preventing colonization of the intestine with pathogenic bacteria, having a symbiotic relationship. E. coli is expelled into the environment within fecal matter. The bacterium grows massively in fresh fecal matter under aerobic conditions for 3 days, but its numbers decline slowly afterwards.

<i>Chlamydia trachomatis</i> species of bacterium

Chlamydia trachomatis, commonly known as chlamydia, is a bacterium that can replicate only in human cells. It causes chlamydia, which can manifest in various ways, including: trachoma, lymphogranuloma venereum, nongonococcal urethritis, cervicitis, salpingitis, pelvic inflammatory disease. C. trachomatis is the most common infectious cause of blindness and the most common sexually transmitted bacterium.

<i>Klebsiella pneumoniae</i> species of bacterium

Klebsiella pneumoniae is a Gram-negative, non-motile, encapsulated, lactose-fermenting, facultative anaerobic, rod-shaped bacterium. It appears as a mucoid lactose fermenter on MacConkey agar.

<i>Serratia</i> genus of bacteria

Serratia is a genus of Gram-negative, facultatively anaerobic, rod-shaped bacteria of the family Enterobacteriaceae. They are typically 1–5 μm in length and do not produce spores. The most common and pathogenic of the species in the genus, S. marcescens, is normally the only pathogen and usually causes nosocomial infections. However, rare strains of S. plymuthica, S. liquefaciens, S. rubidaea, and S. odoriferae have caused diseases through infection. S. marcescens is typically found in showers, toilet bowls, and around wetted tiles. Some members of this genus produce characteristic red pigment, prodigiosin, and can be distinguished from other members of the family Enterobacteriaceae by their unique production of three enzymes: DNase, lipase, and gelatinase.

<i>Proteus vulgaris</i> species of bacterium

Proteus vulgaris is a rod-shaped, nitrate-reducing, indole+ and catalase-positive, hydrogen sulfide-producing, Gram-negative bacterium that inhabits the intestinal tracts of humans and animals. It can be found in soil, water, and fecal matter. It is grouped with the Enterobacteriaceae and is an opportunistic pathogen of humans. It is known to cause wound infections and other species of its genera are known to cause urinary tract infections.

<i>Proteus</i> (bacterium) genus of bacteria

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Pathogenic <i>Escherichia coli</i>

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Operation Sea-Spray was a 1950 U.S. Navy secret experiment in which Serratia marcescens and Bacillus globigii bacteria were sprayed over the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

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Further reading