Stamm, Lola V. Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Last reviewed:January 2016
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A sexually transmitted infection of humans caused by Treponema pallidum, a corkscrew-shaped motile bacterium (spirochete). Syphilis is an infectious disease caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum (specifically, T. pallidum ssp. pallidum in the family Spirochaetaceae) [see illustration] and is transmitted principally by sexual intercourse. Because of its narrow width, the spirochete cannot be seen by light microscopy, but can be observed with staining procedures (silver stain or immunofluorescence) and with dark-field, phase-contrast, or electron microscopy. Treponema pallidum cannot be continuously cultured in vitro by standard bacteriological methods. For antigen production and experimental studies, the organism is propagated by inoculation of laboratory rabbits. Limited multiplication of T. pallidum has been obtained in a tissue culture system at a temperature of 91–95°F (33–35°C) in an atmosphere containing 1–5% oxygen and in media containing reducing agents. The organism is very sensitive to environmental conditions and to physical and chemical agents. The complete genome sequence of the T. pallidum Nichols strain (1.13 × 106 base pairs) has been determined. Analysis of the nucleotide sequence of the small, circular treponemal chromosome indicates that T. pallidum lacks the genetic information for many of the metabolic activities found in other bacteria. Thus, this spirochete is dependent upon the host for most of its nutritional requirements. See also: Bacteria; Electron microscope; Immunofluorescence; Parasitology
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