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Fritz Richard Schaudinn
Paul Erich Hoffmann
Treponema pallidum, causative agent of syphilis, was
discovered by Schaudinn and Hoffmann (1905) in the
chancres and inguinal lymph nodes of syphilitic patients
Speira – coil
Chaite - hair
Spirochaetales Associated Human Diseases
(Trepos – turn
pallidum ssp. pallidum
pallidum ssp. endemicum
pallidum ssp. pertenue
Lyme disease (borreliosis)
Epidemic relapsing fever
Endemic relapsing fever
Leptospirosis (Weil’s Disease)
Thin, delicate, Helically coiled, corkscrew-shaped
10 to 14 μ long and 0.1 to 0.2 μ wide.
Have 8-24 sharp and angular spirals, at regular intervals of
about 1 μm
Ends are pointed with finely spiral terminal filaments.
Under Dark Field Microscopy consists of rapid rotation
around its long axis, slow forward – backward motion,
compression – expansion, bending or flexing, and
Secondary curves appear and disappear in succession but
primary spirals remain unchanged
Live treponemes can’t be seen under conventional light
microscope in wet films
Can be seen with :
Negative staining with Indian Ink.
Warthin Starry stain.
Fontana’s method for staining films
Levaditi’s method for tissue sections
Silver impregnation method
Stain light rose red with prolonged Giemsa staining
Morphology and motility can be visualized by using
dark-field or phase contrast microscopy.
Cryo Electron Tomography (CET) Image
Central protoplasmic cylinder
Cell wall (a thin peptidoglycan layer)
Outer membrane layer
Periplasmic flagella (also called endoflagella)
Protoplasmic cylinder runs through entire length of organism
Has nucleoid, ribosomal structures and other cytoplasmic materials
Trilaminar Cytoplasmic membrane covers protoplasmic cylinder.
Cell wall contains peptidoglycans, gives cell rigidity and shape
Outer membrane is lipid rich and contains low density of trans membrane
Differs from most gram negative bacteria in two major respects:
It lacks lipo-polysaccharide (LPS) membrane proteins.
Contains majority of bacterium's integral membrane proteins and lipoproteins.
Bacterium is covered by a muco-polysaccharide “slime layer” or by host-
derived proteins, thus blocking binding of specific antibodies to surface
From each end of cell, 3-4 endoflagella wind
round axis of cell
Interdigitate at its centre in periplasmic
Endoflagella do not protrude outside, but
remain within Outer membrane layer.
Flagellar filament has a sheath and core
structure and is composed of four major
Treponema is composed of approximately 70 %
proteins, 20 % lipids, and 5 % carbohydrates.
This lipid content is relatively high.
Lipid composition of T pallidum is complex,
consisting of several phospholipids, including
cardiolipin, and a poorly characterized glycolipid.
Fastidious organism that exhibits narrow
optimal ranges of :
pH (7.2 to 7.4)
Temperature (30 to 37°C).
It is rapidly inactivated by mild heat (41-42˚C
in one Hour), cold (0-4˚C in 1-3 days), drying,
and most disinfectants.
Stored frozen at -70˚C in 10%glycerol or in
liquid nitrogen (-130˚C) for 10-15 years
Have a small genome, approximately one-fourth size of
Lacks many biosynthetic pathways, dependent on host
molecules for survival
Contains genes for complete Embden–Meyerhof pathway,
Lacks genes for Krebs cycle and
Lacks heme proteins involved in electron transport
Lacks the genes required to synthesize most amino acids,
purines, pyrimidines, and lipids de novo
Have 18 putative transport systems including ATP-
Binding Cassette (ABC) transport systems
Lacks superoxide dismutase, catalase, or peroxidase,
Multiply by binary transverse fission.
In Vivo generation time is about 30-33 hours.
Do not grow in artificial culture media
Limited replication has been obtained by cocultivation with tissue culture cells.
Viable organisms can be maintained for 10 to 12
days in complex media under anaerobic conditions
Strains have been maintained for many decades by
serial testicular passage in rabbits (Nichol’s strain)
Reiter treponeme (T. phagedenis) grows well in
thioglycollate medium containing serum
• Interaction of T. pallidum with human cells cultured in vitro results in vacuolation,
rounding, and detachment of cells from solid support.
• Heat-killed bacteria do not facilitate these reactions.
• Attachment to mammalian cells is characteristic.
• Following attachment, a cell-bound toxin results in lysis of the cells.
• Intact cell layers with tight junctions support bacterial attachment but
hyaluronidase treatment of the cells decreases attachment.
• Molecular mimicry (stealth strategy). Isolated treponemes are frequently coated
with host-derived proteins (albumin, MHC molecules, Ig heavy chains, etc.). May
help bacteria avoid killing mechanisms
Induces at least three types of antibodies
Reagin antibodies: react in standard or
nonspecific tests for syphilis e.g. wassermann,
kahn and VDRL
Hapten extracted from beef heart is used as
antigen K/a cardiolipin chemically
diphosphatidyl glycerol, also detected in T.
Group antigen: found in pathogenic and non
Polysaccharide antigen: species specific,
demonstrated by specific T. pallidum tests
Venereal T. pallidum
Transmitted from direct sexual contact or from mother to
30% chance of acquiring disease after single exposure to
infected partner but transmission rate dependent upon
stage of disease
Infective dose: 57 organism
Long incubation period 9-90 days (average IP-3 wks)
during which time host is non-infectious
Disease manifests when organism multiply to a density
of 107 per gram of tissue
1. Multiplication at site of entry
2. Invasion through mucous membrane and epithelium
3. Dissemination to regional lymph nodes
4. Translocation to circulation
5. Inflammatory response (localized and generalized)
6. Untreated infections characterized by different phases
(stages) of disease
For direct examination, exudates from lesions of
primary, secondary and early congenital syphilis
are the most useful.
Clear, serous fluid free of erythrocytes, tissue
debris and other organisms is collected.
Serum is the specimen of choice for both
nontreponemal and treponemal serological
Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) testing is indicated in
congenital and tertiary syphilis and when
neurological symptoms are present.
Identification of Treponema pallidum in
•Non-Specific Treponemal Tests
Good for monitoring Rx
•Specific Treponemal Tests.
FTA (“gold standard”, subjective)
TPPA/TPHA (very sensitive)
Immunoblot (Innolia) (good but still early days)
Treponemal IgM/IgG EIA (good commercial automated
Treponemal IgM (detected very early)
Stay positive therefore useless for diagnosing re-infection or response to therapy.
Live treponemes are too slender to be seen
by conventional light microscopy.
Can be seen with :
Negative staining with Indian Ink.
Warthin Starry stain.
Can also be visualized by using dark-field
Simplest and most reliable method.
Exudates and fluids from lesions are
examined as a wet mount.
Identification of T pallidum is based on the
characteristic morphology and motility.
This method is suitable when the lesions are
Examination should be done immediately
after specimen collection.
This technique requires a trained,
Treatment with antibiotics may result in a
Dark-field microscopy has limited sensitivity.
Direct fluorescent antibody test
for T. pallidum
It detects antigen and, thus, does not require the
presence of motile treponemes.
Uses fluorescein isothiocyanate-labelled
antibody specific to pathogenic treponemes
Suitable for the examination of specimens from
oral and rectal lesions.
Does not differentiate between T pallidum and
other pathogenic treponemes.
Oldest method for detecting infection with T.
Rabbits were inoculated intra testicularly
with T. Pallidum .
Nucleic acid amplification
Able to detect as low as one to 10 organisms per
specimen with high specificity.
Used to monitor treatment .
Used to differentiate new infections from old
May be available only through select
Nontreponemal tests are rapid, simple and
They are the only tests recommended to monitor
the course of disease during and after treatment.
Nontreponemal tests can also serve to detect
They are also used as screening tests.
Limitations – low specificity, low sensitivity in
primary and late latent syphilis, false-positive
These include :
Complement Fixation Tests
Kahn Flocculation test
Unheated Serum Reagin Test (USR)
Rapid Plasma Reagin Test (RPR)
Toluidine Red Unheated Serum Test (TRUST)
COMPLEMENT FIXATION TEST
First developed by Wassermann in 1906.
In this method, the patient’s serum containing
antibodies is made to react with a standardised
Wassermann antigen – extract of liver from
newborns who had died of congenital syphilis.
Cholesterol and Lecithin were added to increase
sensitivity of antigens.
Complicated to perform, required many
reagents and 24 h to complete
KAHN FLOCCULATION TEST
In 1922, Kahn introduced a ﬂocculation test
without complement that could be read
macroscopically in a few hours.
Kahn antigen – alcoholic extract of fresh beef
heart with cholesterol.
On reaction with syphilitic serum, floccules
are formed which can be seen with the naked
Standardization of the tests was difﬁcult.
Slide micro flocculation test.
Serum or CSF can be used.
The basis of the test is that an antibody
produced by a patient with syphilis reacts with
an extract of ox heart
Visualized through foaming of the test tube
fluid, or "flocculation".
It therefore detects anti-cardiolipin antibodies.
Antigen - 0.03% cardiolipin, 0.21% lecithin and
A reactive VDRL is seen in about 50-75% of patients
with primary syphilis and 100% in patients with
VDRL test can be quantitated by examining serial
dilutions of serum and can be used to follow the
course of illness, including the response to therapy.
A dilution of > 1:8 is suggestive of syphilis.
VDRL yields reproducible results, can be rapidly
performed, acceptable levels of sensitivity and
speciﬁcity, valuable tool for mass screening
Biological false positive
Since the test employs a non-treponemal antigen,
there are many chances of biological false
Repeated blood loss
SLE and other collagen vascular disorders
Hepatitis or any other liver disease
Prozone reactions are false-negative reactions that
occur due to interference by high concentrations of
target antibodies in a specimen.
UNHEATED SERUM REAGIN TEST
Quantitative, microscopic, non treponemal,
flocculation test similar to VDRL.
The VDRL antigen is enhanced by the
addition of choline chloride and EDTA.
So the need for heating serum was
Plasma could also be used an acceptable
RAPID PLASMA REAGIN TEST
Rapid Plasma Reagin (RPR) test is a macroscopic
Non Treponemal flocculation test , and is a
simplified version of the VDRL test.
The RPR test uses a stabilized suspension of
VDRL antigen to which charcoal particles are
added to aid in the visualization of the test
Serum or plasma can be used.
RPR Teardrop card test and RPR 18mm circle
card test are further refinements of this test
which are used currently for screening.
Toluidine Red Unheated Serum Test (TRUST) is a
macroscopic Non Treponemal flocculation test.
In the TRUST test, particles of toluidine red are
used in place of the charcoal particles of the RPR
test as the visualising agents.
Serum or plasma can be used.
Quantitative values allow evaluation of recent
infection and response to treatment. Used for
screening and follow up of therapy
Treponemal tests may remain reactive for years
with or without treatment
Treponemal test antibody titres correlate poorly
with disease activity.
Therefore, treponemal tests should not be used to
evaluate response to therapy, relapse or reinfection
in previously treated patients.
Treponemal tests do not differentiate venereal
syphilis from endemic syphilis (yaws and pinta).
Treponemal tests are used mainly as confirmatory
tests to verify reactivity in nontreponemal tests.
These include :
T. pallidum Immobilization (TPI)
Reiter’s Antigen CFT
Fluorescent Treponemal Antibody test (FTA)
FTA Absorption test (FTA - ABS)
T. pallidum haemagglutination assay (TPHA)
T. pallidum Particle Agglutination Assay (TPPA)
MHA – TP
PK – TP
T. pallidum immobilization (TPI) test
Antigen - T. pallidum (Nichols strain) grown in
It is based on the ability of patient’s antibody and
complement to immobilize living treponemes, as
observed by dark-ﬁeld microscopy.
However, the TPI test was complicated,
technically difﬁcult, time-consuming, expensive
to perform and is not used much now.
REITER’s ANTIGEN CFT
Reiter protein complement ﬁxation test.
Antigen - prepared from T. phagedenis, the
Reiter treponeme, a nonpathogenic organism
was used in a complement ﬁxation test.
High proportion of false-positive reactions.
Less speciﬁc and sensitive than the TPI test.
antibody (FTA) test
The FTA procedure uses a 1:5 dilution of the
patient’s serum in saline solution, reacted
with a suspension of Reiter treponeme.
FITC(ﬂuorescein isothiocyanate) was used as
the conjugate, and the test was read under a
microscope with a UV light source.
Nonspeciﬁc reactions were encountered in
approximately 25% of normal serum
To eliminate these false-positive reactions,
the test was modiﬁed by diluting the patient’s
serum 1:200, the FTA-200 test.
The FTA – 200 is highly specific but not very
FTA absorption (FTA-ABS)
Generally regarded as the gold standard test
for confirming diagnosis.
FTA-ABS is the most sensitive test in all
stages of syphilis.
The patient’s diluted serum (1:5) is added to
the Reiter antigen and “group” treponemal
antibodies are absorbed leaving behind
“specific” antibodies in the serum.
Results are reported as reactive, reactive
minimal, nonreactive, or atypical ﬂuorescence
It is a subjective test and difficult to standardise.
Less than 1% false positives are due to HIV, SLE,
RA or old-age.
The FTA-ABS double staining test is a
modification of the FTA-ABS test using a double
staining procedure with the addition of a
The most appropriate test for confirming diagnosis.
It is an indirect haemagglutination assay.
Antigen – formalinized, tanned, erythrocytes
sensitized with ultrasonicated material from T.
pallidum (Nichols strain).
The presence of treponemal antibody in the
patient’s serum is detected by the indirect
agglutination of the sensitized erythrocytes and the
subsequent formation of a mat of erythrocytes
upon their settling.
Results are reported as reactive, nonreactive, or
Specificity - 99%
Biological False Positive in some cases of Leprosy.
If gelatin particles are used instead of erythrocytes,
test is called T. pallidum particle agglutination assay
Microhaemagglutination assay for antibodies to T.
pallidum (MHA-TP) uses reagents for a
microvolume haemagglutination test.
Haemagglutination Treponemal test for Syphilis
(HATTS) is another variant.
PK- T. pallidum (PK-TP) test
PK-TP is a new haemagglutination test which
has achieved provisional status.
The PK-TP reagent is composed of chicken
erythrocytes which have been ﬁxed and then
sensitized with components of sonicated T.
Enzyme Immuno Assay
A number of treponemal EIA tests are now
Captia Syphilis M
Captia Syphilis G
Captia select Syph-G
SpiroTek syphilis test
These are newer tests with provisional status
which are being used now in a number of
A new multiplex real-time PCR test for HSV1/2 and
syphilis: an evaluation of its impact in the
laboratory and clinical setting
Objectives To develop, evaluate and implement a new multiplex real-time PCR test for the
detection of herpes simplex virus (HSV)1, HSV2 and syphilis in a single sample using a single
Methods A multiplex real-time PCR test detecting HSV1, HSV2 and Treponema pallidum was
designed, validated and evaluated for a period of 6 months on patients attending the
Sandyford Initiative (a series of genitourinary medicine clinics in and around Glasgow). A total
of 692 samples were tested, and T pallidum PCR positives were confirmed by a second PCR at
the Scottish Reference Laboratory (SBSTIRL). All PCR results were aligned with dark ground
microscopy findings and serological results where available and compared.
Results The laboratory validation of the multiplex assay showed the test to be sensitive,
specific and robust. Of the 692 samples, 139 were positive for HSV1, 136 for HSV2, 15 for
syphilis, one for both syphilis and HSV1, and 401 were negative; the reference laboratory
confirmed all T pallidum PCR-positive samples. The PCR test was more sensitive than both
dark ground microscopy and serological testing for the diagnosis of primary syphilis.
Conclusions The introduction of this new test has led to a better turnaround time for the
diagnosis of genital ulcer disease, better detection of primary syphilis infection, and the
detection of unexpected cases of syphilis where the aetiological agent suspected was HSV.