The Spirochetes

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Spirochetes are typically observed using darkfield microscopy (left). However, electron microscopy (top center, bottom center) provides a more detailed view of their cellular morphology. The flagella found between the inner and outer membranes of spirochetes wrap around the bacterium, causing a twisting motion used for locomotion. (credit “spirochetes” micrograph: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit “SEM/ TEM”: modification of work by Guyard C, Raffel SJ, Schrumpf ME, Dahlstrom E, Sturdevant D, Ricklefs SM, Martens C, Hayes SF, Fischer ER, Hansen BT, Porcella SF, Schwan TG)

OpenStax Microbiology

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.

Source:

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

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