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SYMBIOSIS (2009) 47, 51–58
©2009 Balaban, Philadelphia/Rehovot
ISSN 0334-5114
Position paper.
Spirochete round bodies
Syphilis, Lyme disease & AIDS: Resurgence of “the great imitator”?
Lynn Margulis 1* , Andrew Maniotis 2 , James MacAllister 1 , John Scythes 3 , Oystein Brorson 4 , John Hall 1 ,
Wolfgang E. Krumbein 5 , and Michael J. Chapman 1
1 Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, USA, Emails. celeste@geo.umass.edu,
jimmymac@geo.umass.edu, johnloomishall@gmail.com, oenothera1@yahoo.com, www.geo.umass.edu/margulislab;
2 Department of Pathology, University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Medicine, 840 South Wood Street,
Chicago, IL 60612, USA, Email. amanioti@uic.edu;
3 Research co-coordinator, Community Initiative for AIDS Research, proprietor and owner, Glad Day Bookshop,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Email. john@gladdaybookshop.com;
4 Sentralsykehuset i Vestfold, Department Microbiology, Tonsberg, Norway, Tel. +47-33-342475,
Email. abrorson@newmedia.no;
5 Geomicrobiology, ICBM, Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg, Germany, Email. wek@uni-oldenburg.de
(Received August 18, 2008; Accepted August 31, 2008)
We advocate investigation of spirochete cyclical symbioses (e.g., Borrelia sp ., Leptospira sp., Treponema sp.) given the
newly established verification of a developmental history in these gram-negative motile helical eubacteria, both in pure
culture and in mammals. Symbiotic spirochetes can be compared to free-living relatives for their levels of integration
(behavioral, metabolic, gene product or genetic levels). Detailed research that correlates life histories of symbiotic
spirochetes to changes in the immune system of associated vertebrates is sorely needed. Genome analyses show that in
necrotrophic symbioses ( Borrelia and Treponema sp.) of humans and other primates, integration of the bionts occurs at the
gene product and genetic level. Spirochete round bodies (also called cysts, L-forms and sphaeroplasts) can be induced by
many types of unfavorable conditions (e.g., threats of starvation, desiccation, oxidation, penicillin and other antibiotics).
Reversion to familiar helical, motile active swimmers by placement of pure cultures into favorable environments in some
cases can be controlled. These observations are supported by a European literature, especially Russian, apparently unknown
to American medicine and medical research.
Keywords: Spirochete cysts, Treponema pallidum , Borrelia burgdorferi , AIDS co-factor, immune suppression, STD,
spirochetoses, Spirosymplokos , fossil spirochetes, spirochete life histories, Mixotricha paradoxa , round
body reversion
1. Introduction
Powerful new techniques of microbiology, including
molecular ecology and evolution inspire us to urge
reinvestigation of the natural history of mammalian,
tick-borne, and venereal transmission of spirochetes in
relation to impairment of the human immune system.
At a small meeting, Spirochaete Co-evolution in the
Proterozoic Eon: Ecology, symbiosis, and pathogenesis (an
excursion into environmental immunology) organized by
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang E. Krumbein and Prof. Lynn Margulis
held in the Museum für Naturkunde (Berlin, May 1–2,
2008) we scientists, medical researchers, historians and
physicians endorsed this statement.
We, the signatories of this paper, limit ourselves to four
issues. First, that current medical discussions of two
spirochetoses (spirochete-associated infirmities, e.g., Lyme
disease, syphilis) omit mention of “round bodies” or state
that they have no clinical relevance (Feder et al.,
2007). Round bodies are viable, motile, slowly reproductive
morphologies assumed by spirochetes when they are
* The author to whom correspondence should be sent.
threatened by environmental insult such as changes in
solution chemistry: acidity-alkalinity, salts, gas composition
(i.e., oxygen, hydrogen sulfide); changes in chemical
concentrations (i.e., antibiotics, antibodies, carbohydrates,
amino acids, vitamins); or changes in viscosity or
temperature. Both starvation and threat of desiccation
induce round body formation. Some cultures of spirochetes
(e.g., Leptonema, Perfilievia , Dubinina et al., 2008) seem to
persist more as round bodies than as typical spirochetes.
Round bodies, often called by other names such as "cysts",
granular bodies, L-forms, non-growing bodies, sphaero-
plasts, vesicles, etc. revert to the active helical swimmers
when conditions favorable to growth return (Fig. 1).
Second, that infections by spirochetes in humans, when
seen in their evolutionary and ecological context, are
examples of cyclical symbioses that have evolved over
geologic time. Certain symbioses have been shown to be
associated with viral-like particles capable of synthesis of
reverse transcriptases (Fig. 2). These are posited by Ryan
(2007) based significantly on the work of Luis Villareal to
be part of the integration process between the symbiont
partners (i.e., in this case human and spirochete).
Third, we caution that antibiotic treatment may be
effective only in the earliest stages of these spirochetoses.
Indeed antibiotics such as penicillin and its derivatives
induce round body formation and quiescence of symptoms
rather than cure. Suspension of round bodies in growth
media causes rapid, days to weeks, reversion to helical
swimmers as the Norwegian investigators have shown (Fig.
3; Brorson and Brorson, 2004).
Fourth, we question the accuracy of screening tests and
clinical diagnoses for either of these infections, Treponema
pallidum (the syphilis “germ”) or Borrelia burgdorferi (the
Lyme disease “germ”). Particularly vulnerable to mis-
interpretation are immunological tests in cases of re-
infection, later secondary or tertiary syphilis.
2. Spirochetes: Past and Present
Most spirochete species live freely, are unrelated to any
disease and therefore are unfamiliar to clinicians. We have
studied or taught cell biology, environmental science,
evolution, genetics, geobiology, natural history or
microbiology. Our interest, perhaps summarized around the
question “ What is the consequence of life's evolution on the
Earth as a planet?” has led us to scientific investigation of
Figure 2. Detail of Fig. 4. of Hoogenraad et al. (1967) captioned:
Electron micrograph of phage-infected spirochaetes, negatively
stained as in Fig. 1 and using the agar stripping technique (3). The
edge of the organism is lined with many small phages. The
fibrillar structure of the spirochaetes is clearly shown. Also
present in the lower section of the micrograph is a bacterial cell
wall typical of those found in large numbers in sheep tureen
contents. Scale bar = 0.5 µm.
Figure 1. Live spirochete reversible round bodies in mixed
culture. (The largest are Spirosymplokos deltaeiberi , from seaside
microbial mats, Alfacs peninsula, Catalunya, Spain). Nomarski
differential contrast light microscopy. A: Note several sizes of
round bodies come from different kinds of spirochetes. B: Higher
magnification shows the largest round bodies (rb) contain live,
motile Spirosysmplokos. Scale bars = 5 µm.
Figure 3. Formation and reversion of round bodies (rb=cysts,
arrows) of Borrelia burgdorferi in pure culture. A, D: Conversion
to round bodies induced by "unfavorable conditions" most rapidly
by suspension in distilled water (starvation), spinal fluid or
antibiotics. B: Rbs formed after three weeks starvation, some
delayed, correspond to electron micrographs (by Sverre-Henning
Brorson). C, E, and H: Round bodies can reproduce as in C.
Fluorescein-conjugated polyclonal antibodies to B. burgdorferi
stains spirochete rb membranes. F: Reversion of rbs to mobile
spirochetes induced by resuspension in complete medium with
rabbit serum (for 2–6 weeks) shown in G. Scale bars: A, C, E, H =
2 µm; B, D = 3 µm; F, G = 10 µm.
and occasionally isolated spirochetes from ponds rich in
vegetation, digestive organs of marine mollusks (the
“crystalline style” of oysters and clams) and intestines of
wood-feeding termites and cockroaches. In these anoxic or
low-oxygen habitats spirochetes swim and proliferate.
Population densities often quickly reach over a thousand
million per milliliter.
Margulis’s laboratory explores an evolutionary
hypothesis. She and her colleagues posit that a certain
spirochete genome provided an ancestral component to the
earliest nucleated cells (eukaryotes). Spirochete remnant
DNA hypothesized to be present in all nucleated organisms
should be detectable in the proteomes of fully sequenced
genomes. Simply stated, spirochete ancestors of Perfilievia
russae free-living spirochetes presented at the Berlin
meeting by Galina Dubinina (Institute of Microbiology of
the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Dubinina et
al., 2008) by hypothesis are the closest co-descendants of
the cytoskeleton of our nucleated cell lineage (Margulis et
al., 2006). We envision these (sulfide-oxidizing, 0.25 µm
diameter spirochetes) are related to ancestors of cilia, sperm
tails, haptonemes and myriad other organelles of motility in
nucleated organisms. If the evidence is correctly interpreted
spirochete remnants have dwelled in stable symbioses in
eukaryotes since their origin in the Proterozoic eon over
1000 million years ago (mya) (Hall, 2008). The most
ancient intestinal spirochete symbiont in the fossil record is
much younger (Miocene c. 20 mya). A Pillotina sp . large
spirochete was discovered inside Mastotermes
electrodominicus, a kalotermitid (dry wood-feeding termite)
embedded in amber (Wier et al., 2002; 2007). Intestinal
spirochetes lived as symbionts in insects long before the
appearance, fewer than 0.5 million years ago, of any human
animal on Earth.
Spirochetes are motile helical Gram-negative
eubacteria. As heterotrophs, at optimal temperatures for
growth, they require moisture and abundant food. Most
ferment sugar in the absence of oxygen. They form a
cohesive taxon detectable by the DNA sequence that
corresponds precisely to the 16 Svedberg-unit ribosomal
RNA (16S rRNA) component of the small 30S ribosomal
subunit. Spirochetes with their Gram-negative cell walls
and periplasmic (internal) flagella between their inner and
outer membranes are distinctive at the level of thin section-
electron microscopy (EM) (Fig. 2). The inner or plasma
membrane is universal in all prokaryotic (bacterial) and
eukaryotic cells. However the presence of an outer
lipoprotein membrane typifies Gram-negative bacteria. To
assign them to a lower taxon, a “species” or “genus”,
spirochete morphology is definitively discerned in EM thin
section and less well by negative stain images that permit
assessment of their flagella insertions and numbers.
Spirochetes share a distinguishable flagellar pattern
summarized as n: 2n:n where n=number of flagella at one
end, 2n (or zero for leptospiras) refers to the overlap of
spirochetes in nature. Our comments here are generated by
an abundant international literature and years of our own
work much of it on harmless spirochetes. We have observed
flagella in the middle and n=number of flagella at the
opposite end. The flagella pattern of Treponema pallidum
(1:2:1; 2:4:2), Borrelia burgdorferi (4:8:4/5:10:5), or any
other spirochete can be detected in three ways:
(1) morphology, especially active motility behavior in
tissue, (2) thin section transmission EM and (3) negative
stain whole mount EM. No reliable definitive tests for the
presence of T. pallidum in patients exists short of quality
high magnification observation of the spirochetes and/or
their round bodies in affected tissue by an experienced
expert microscopist. Reported cures of either infection, the
syphilis Treponema or the Lyme disease Borrelia , lack this
level of verification. Spirochetoses (e.g., leptospiroses,
yaws, syphilis, Lyme disease) are bacterial diseases
correlated with continued presence in the body of specific
spirochetes (i.e., obey Koch's postulates).
4. Mistaken for Dead
An extensive round body (=cyst) literature exists in
Russian, but has remained relatively unknown even to
spirochete experts elsewhere. In many spirochetes
formation and reversion of round bodies has been
documented by video microscopy techniques. The
approximate number of genes of the entire sequenced
genome of each genus in which round bodies are seen is
listed in parenthesis: Borrelia (950), Brachyspira (?),
Leptospira interrogans (4300), Perfilievia = aerotolerant
Thiodendron " spirochetes of Dubinina et al. (2008) (?),
Spirosymplokos deltaeiberi (?), Treponema pallidum
(1100), and the Treponema -like spirochetes epibiotic in
the cortex of the giant trichomonad Mixotricha paradoxa
(?). Both T. pallidum and Borrelia burgdorferi are
anaerobic heterotrophs that require complex organic food
under anoxic conditions. They die if exposed to ambient
oxygen. The round bodies, propagules that, until they revert
to swimming helices, seem incapable of at least rapid
growth by reproduction, form quickly. Within less than an
hour, under adverse conditions round bodies develop in
large population numbers when the spirochete’s needs are
not met. They survive for extended periods of time. They
revert to helical swimmer populations that grow vigorously
when food, salt, temperature, acidity, media viscosity and
other conditions become adequate. The controlled
formation and reversion of round bodies of Borrelia are
seen in many studies by the Brorsons. Negative stain EM
images show canonical treponemes with the 1-2-1 flagellar
pattern: “Borrelia”-type (4-8-4) or higher number flagella-
pattern-spirochetes recognizable in tissue preparations,
even in the same thin section from a rabbit syphiloma
(Ovcinnikov and Delektorskij, 1968; 1975).
3. Chronic Infections as Symbioses
The likelihood that these two spirochete infections,
syphilis and Lyme disease, correlate with the establishment
of permanent human-spirochete symbioses soon after entry
of the bacteria into tissue has been insufficiently
investigated. It is reported that reverse transcriptases and
virus-like particles are generally abundant in cyclical
symbioses and it is suggested that they may facilitate the
integration of the association of the partners (Ryan, 2007).
Our intent is to improve and expand awareness of the
relationship between spirochetoses and symptoms
associated with immune suppression. We posit that the
spirochete disease syphilis persists in the human population
where its signs and symptoms may be overlooked or
misinterpreted for those of AIDS.
There may be many new drugs, but these two
spirochetoses, syphilis and Lyme disease, are not new.
Long-term association of symbiotic bacteria in animal
tissue tends toward massive gene loss when compared to
related bacteria that live freely in water, sand or mud. The
fact that Treponema pallidum and Borrelia burgdorferi are
no longer free-living and have lost many genes implies that
these spirochetes have long co-evolved with mammals (and
arthropods in the case of tick-borne Borrelia burgdorferi
Lyme disease). Contrast these integrated symbionts to
strains of Leptospira that live freely in rivers, streams and
coastal ocean waters that cause acute infection. Compared
to the fully genome-sequenced Leptospira interrogans
spirochete, over 80% of the genome of T. pallidum when
cultivated in vitro is absent. Dependency of T. pallidum on
the gene products of the human has rendered it incapable of
independent survival, growth or reproduction. Indeed
Borrelia burgdorferi has lost relatively even more of its
genophore (prokaryote “chromosome”) genes than
T. pallidum.
5. Spirochetoses and AIDS
Human tissue provides food and other conditions for
growth for both Treponema pallidum and Borrelia
burgdorferi spirochetes. Electron micrographic samples, in
principle, could verify the persistence of round bodies in
patients with symptoms, including Alzheimer's-type
dementia. Examination of biopsies from AIDS patients or
autopsies of brains from people who showed sudden
personality disturbance could test the hypothesis. Round
body formation in the test tube is induced by penicillin
especially in the presence of glycine (a protein amino acid,
read “food”). This discovery formed the major contribution
of the PhD dissertation (and accompanying patent
application) of Andrei Belichenko (2006). Dr. Belichenko
was a student of a well-known medical microbiologist Dr.
Igor Bazikov, Stavropol, Russia (Bazikov et al., 200).
Belichenko reports that decrease in penicillin concentration
induces reversion of round bodies to active hungry
spirochetes. Russian research and that by Brorson and
Brorson (2004) on spirochetal life histories lead us to think
that both the presentation and the course of syphilis, Lyme
disease and other spirochetoses are altered by penicillin,
other antibiotics and possibly by “anti-retroviral” or
“protease inhibitor” drugs.
“Far from eradicating syphilis, antibiotics are driving
the disease underground and increasing the difficulty of
detection. Although the incidence of disease has more than
tripled since 1955, the chancre and secondary rash no
longer are commonly seen. Undoubtedly, some of these
lesions are being suppressed and the disease masked by the
indiscriminate use of antibiotics. The ominous prospect of a
widespread resurgence of the disease in its tertiary forms
looms ahead” (Pereyra and Voller, 1970).
We recommend studies to demonstrate or negate the
hypothesis that relapse, grave illness or death may ensue
from the reversion of round bodies to active spirochetes.
Please see bibliography, 254 references on 49 pages
compiled by Joanna Rubel “Spirochetal Cysts, L-forms, and
Blebs, Observations from 1905 to 2005”, at
A three-decade-long gap ushered in by the touted "cure
of penicillin" separates physicians today from the bulk of
medical literature on “the great imitator”. T. pallidum
symbiosis may help explain the high correlation of the
presence of viruses, pneumonias, other opportunistic
infections and the general symptoms of immune
suppression so well described in the "old syphilology"
medical literature (Colman Jones
www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/Aids/aidsspin.html). We suspect
that many patients carry the latent disease that has become
invisible because of the "syphilization effect" and
T. pallidum spirochetes that cover themselves with
human proteins to which people make antibodies (Radolf
and Lukehart, 2006) cause "autoimmune diseases".
The vigorous antigenic response of early infection fades
to the classical secondary-to-tertiary symptoms of paresis.
“PARESIS”, a mnemonic, refers to a coherent and varying
set of symptoms, a syndrome. “Pe rsonality disturbances,
A ffect abnormalities, R eflex hyperactivity, E ye
abnormalities, S ensorium changes, I ntellectual impairment
and Sl urred speech. PARESIS may begin with a dramatic
delusional episode (e.g., Nietzsche January 1889 in the
Turin Plaza; Margulis, 2004 and 2007). However, over the
years, dementia may alternate with periods of such clarity
that there seems to have been a cure” (Hayden, 2003).
Since the research group of Luc Montagnier first
described LAV “virus-like particles” (later called “HIV-1”)
from “Patient 1”, a close connection has been shown
between AIDS and a history of syphilis in multi-partner
men (Barre-Sinoussi et al., 1983). “Patient 1” sought
medical consultation for swollen lymph nodes, muscle
weakness without fever or weight loss, and for episodes of
ubiquitous mycobacterium avium intracellulare (MAI
group) diarrhea, and emaciation associated with refractory
bowel infections in emaciated homosexuals and in immune
compromised patients generally. TB and other myco-
bacteria correlate with amoebic dysentery. Death
records report causes as Pneumocystis carini pneumonia,
Entamoeba histolytica , Candida albicans or other
“opportunistic infection” (Coulter, 1987). In sub-Saharan
Africa, the historic overuse of antibiotics and malnutrition
also contribute to immune suppression. One of us (John
Scythes) reports that he has not found a single documented
case of an immune suppressed patient, whether HIV-
positive or -negative, who has died of complications of
syphilis since HIV records began being maintained in the
early 1980s. Is it possible that the narrow focus on "HIV as
the cause of AIDS", an example of scientific "misplaced
concreteness" typical in explanation of evolution (Cobb,
2008), has facilitated missed diagnosis of syphilis?
Indeed, investigators in Toronto and San Francisco
found an inverse relationship between treponemal antibody
and AIDS symptoms that could be interpreted as the
immune deficiency typical of disseminated syphilis
(MacFadden et al., 1989; Haas et al., 1990; Fralick et al.,
Contrary to the statements on many official government
and medical websites that "syphilis is easily curable by
antibiotics", the disease is often refractory to antibiotic and
other treatments except perhaps in very early immuno-
responsive stages (Musher et al., 1990). It has not been
adequately shown that T. pallidum infection in its
secondary and later stages is curable after any therapy.
Because the lesions of secondary and tertiary syphilis are
autoimmune, there is often an inability to react to a skin test
of the delayed type. A loss of specificity against syphilis
antigens is noted. Chronicity, or changes in immune
response with time well established in spirochetoses is
common to other infections: herpes viruses, tuberculosis
and symptoms attributed to HIV. Syphilis, both early ulcers
and the later immunoregulation problems, seems to
facilitate acquisition of opportunistic bacteria, viruses,
fungi and the progression to full-blown collapse of the
immune system (Scythes and Jones, 2006).
gonorrhea. He did not have AIDS. He had been previously
treated for syphilis, but was he cured? Patient 1 tested
positive for antibodies to three viruses: cytomegalovirus
(CMV), Epstein-Barr virus and Herpes simplex. The first
“HIV isolate” reported by Montagnier's group was from
Patient 1. Since Montagnier's work, many centers that used
immunological tests not sensitive for all stages of syphilis
have documented a close relationship between a history of
treponematoses and HIV/AIDS (Veugelers et al., 1992;
Renzullo et al., 1991; Blocker et al., 2000). Chronic
syphilitics and AIDS patients, those unmistakably ill and
immune suppressed, do not succumb to HIV or syphilis
directly. They die of reactivation tuberculosis (TB) and
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