Parasitism by virulent Treponema pallidum of host cell surfaces

N. S. Hayes, K. E. Muse, A. M. Collier, J. B. Baseman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


The interaction between virulent Treponema pallidum extracted from infected rabbit testes and animal cells in culture was examined. The extent of treponemal attachment to monolayers of normal rabbit testicular and HEp-2 cells was dependent upon the incubation temperature and retained motility of the spirochetes. The specific orientation of treponemes to host cell surfaces was demonstrated by dark-field microscopic examination of wet-mount preparations and scanning and transmission electron microscopy. Once attached, T. pallidum organisms remained actively motile yet anchored in place by their terminal tapered structures. After several hours of co-incubation, maximal attachment was attained, and the degree of parasitism seemed regulated not only by available surface sites on individual host cells but also by the proposed membrane response of parasitized cells to continued exposure to treponemes. The avirulent strain, Treponema phagedenis biotype Reiter, did not adhere to monolayer cultures. Characterization of host cell determinants that permitted surface colonization by T. pallidum was attempted. Also, properties of virulent treponemes that enabled surface parasitism were monitored by measuring the effects of enzymes, detergents, and metabolic inhibitors on the host-parasite interaction. Results reinforced the specific nature of the treponemal attachment mechanism. Furthermore, the ability of convalescent rabbit sera to reduce attachment of treponemes to host cells suggested that surface structures on T. pallidum could be masked or inactivated by host components, thus providing a potentially effective research approach for investigating the pathogenesis of syphilis and screening appropriate vaccine candidates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)174-186
Number of pages13
JournalInfection and immunity
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1977
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Infectious Diseases


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