Spirochetes are characterized by their long (up to 250 μm), spiral-shaped bodies. Most spirochetes are also very thin, which makes it difficult to examine gram-stained preparations under a conventional brightfield microscope. Darkfield fluorescent microscopy is typically used instead. Spirochetes are also difficult or even impossible to culture. They are highly motile, using their axial filament to propel themselves. The axial filament is similar to a flagellum, but it wraps around the cell and runs inside the cell body of a spirochete in the periplasmic space between the outer membrane and the plasma membrane.
Several genera of spirochetes include human pathogens. For example, the genus Treponema includes a species T. pallidum, which is further classified into four subspecies: T. pallidum pallidum, T. pallidum pertenue, T. pallidum carateum, and T. pallidum endemicum. The subspecies T. pallidum pallidum causes the sexually transmitted infection known as syphilis, the third most prevalent sexually transmitted bacterial infection in the United States, after chlamydia and gonorrhea. The other subspecies of T. pallidum cause tropical infectious diseases of the skin, bones, and joints.
Another genus of spirochete, Borrelia, contains a number of pathogenic species. B. burgdorferi causes Lyme disease, which is transmitted by several genera of ticks (notably Ixodes and Amblyomma) and often produces a “bull’s eye” rash, fever, fatigue, and, sometimes, debilitating arthritis. B. recurrens causes a condition known as relapsing fever.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology