Non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) are paradigmatic colonizers of the total environment, circulating at the interfaces of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and anthroposphere. Their striking adaptive ecology on the interconnection of multiple spheres results from the combination of several biological features related to their exclusive hydrophobic and lipid-rich impermeable cell wall, transcriptional regulation signatures, biofilm phenotype, and symbiosis with protozoa. This unique blend of traits is reviewed in this work, with highlights to the prodigious plasticity and persistence hallmarks of NTM in a wide diversity of environments, from extreme natural milieus to microniches in the human body. Knowledge on the taxonomy, evolution, and functional diversity of NTM is updated, as well as the molecular and physiological bases for environmental adaptation, tolerance to xenobiotics, and infection biology in the human and non-human host. The complex interplay between individual, species-specific and ecological niche traits contributing to NTM resilience across ecosystems are also explored. This work hinges current understandings of NTM, approaching their biology and heterogeneity from several angles and reinforcing the complexity of these microorganisms often associated with a multiplicity of diseases, including pulmonary, soft-tissue, or milliary. In addition to emphasizing the cornerstones of knowledge involving these bacteria, we identify research gaps that need to be addressed, stressing out the need for decision-makers to recognize NTM infection as a public health issue that has to be tackled, especially when considering an increasingly susceptible elderly and immunocompromised population in developed countries, as well as in low- or middle-income countries, where NTM infections are still highly misdiagnosed and neglected.
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