Agricultural Use of Burkholderia (Pseudomonas) cepacia: A Threat to Human Health?

Alison Holmes,* John Govan,† and Richard Goldstein‡
*Imperial College School of Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, London, United Kingdom; †University of Edinburgh
Medical School, Edinburgh, United Kingdom; and ‡Maxwell Finland Laboratory for Infectious Diseases, Boston
University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


In the past 2 decades, Burkholderia cepacia has emerged as a human pathogen causing numerous outbreaks,
particularly among cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. One highly transmissible strain has spread across North America
and Britain, and another between hospitalized CF and non-CF patients. Meanwhile, the organism has been
developed as a biopesticide for protecting crops against fungal diseases and has potential as a bioremediation
agent for breaking down recalcitrant herbicides and pesticides. However, B. cepacia is inherently resistant to
multiple antibiotics; selection of strains "safe" for environmental application is not at present possible
phenotypically or genotypically; molecular epidemiology and phylogenetic studies demonstrate that highly
transmissible strains emerge randomly; and the organism has a capacity for rapid mutation and adaptation
(facilitated by numerous insertion sequences), and a large, complex genome divided into separate
chromosomes. Therefore, the widespread agricultural use of B. cepacia should be approached with caution.