Because I am a currently nonpracticing but still licensed advice columnist, people sometimes ask me: “Kaitlin, what is the most charismatic bacterial phylum?”

This is always a tough call.  As someone who is particularly interested in environmental causes, I am of course tempted to say cyanobacteria (side note look at the strange decorations on that website).  When I really take the time to define and appreciate charisma though, I always settle on the same answer:  the Spirochetes.


An excerpt of what would be my favorite web comic if it weren't a reference website instead.

Spirochetes are delighful, dancing coil-shaped organisms.  Their shape says “party,” where the shapes of other bacteria say “textbook diagram study session.”

Two Facinating Spirochaete:

1.  Syphillis (Treponema pallidum)

Syphillis is probably the most well known spirochete, made famous, of course, by the documentary “Jerri’s Burning Issue,” which chronicles a high school student’s struggle with the disease.  It also well known for afflicting most  people who achieved any greatness in the ninteenth century.

This American Life recently featured a man who claimed that the development of the syphilis treatment Salvarsan, the first antibiotic, was a major turning point in the path that American medical care took to becoming the crazy mess of problems talk about daily.  His argument was that it was the first time medicine actually cured people of a disease, changing people’s expectations of medicine as a whole.

2.  Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi)

Lyme disease was discovered fairly recently, with the first cases being diagnosed in 1975.  Lyme disease has been made most famous by former Real World Seattle cast member, Irene McGee.  Our knowledge of Lyme disease is murky and it is controversial among doctors.  Like the early days of the study of syphilis, most of the controversy lies in whether or not Lyme disease is a short term or a long term illness.  People believed that once syphilis was treated with mercury (which was the earliest treatment) until the symptoms went away, it was cured.  It wasn’t until many doctors began to notice and draw connections between a huge variety of symptoms in patients who had decades before been diagnosed with syphilis that syphilis was discovered to be chronic.  This debate is currently happening with Lyme disease.  Lyme disease is exciting because it can lead to symptoms that look like both schizophrenia and arthritis.  The worst symptoms are probably various forms of dysautonomia like palsy.

There you have it.  The spirochete is a terrifying, sneaky bacteria with a shape that makes everyone want to be it’s friend.  Congratulations, Spirochaete!


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