Novel Ultrastructures of Treponema Primitia and Their Implications for Motility

Mol Microbiol. 2008 Mar;67(6):1184-95. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2958.2008.06120.x. Epub 2008 Feb 1.


Members of the bacterial phylum Spirochaetes are generally helical cells propelled by periplasmic flagella. The spirochete Treponema primitia is interesting because of its mutualistic role in the termite gut, where it is believed to cooperate with protozoa that break down cellulose and produce H(2) as a by-product. Here we report the ultrastructure of T. primitia as obtained by electron cryotomography of intact, frozen-hydrated cells. Several previously unrecognized external structures were revealed, including bowl-like objects decorating the outer membrane, arcades of hook-shaped proteins winding along the exterior and tufts of fibrils extending from the cell tips. Inside the periplasm, cone-like structures were found at each pole. Instead of the single peptidoglycan layer typical of other Gram-negative bacteria, two distinct periplasmic layers were observed. These layers formed a central open space that contained two flagella situated adjacent to each other. In some areas, the inner membrane formed flattened invaginations that protruded into the cytoplasm. High-speed light microscopic images of swimming T. primitia cells showed that cell bodies remained rigid and moved in a helical rather than planar motion. Together, these findings support the 'rolling cylinder' model for T. primitia motility that posits rotation of the protoplasmic cylinder within the outer sheath.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cytoplasm / ultrastructure
  • Microscopy, Electron / methods*
  • Microscopy, Phase-Contrast
  • Models, Biological
  • Periplasm / ultrastructure
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods*
  • Treponema / cytology
  • Treponema / physiology
  • Treponema / ultrastructure*