Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Corkscrew swimming is efficient: spiroplasma bacteria

Helical spiroplasma bacteria swim efficiently in a micro scale medium by moving their body in a corkscrew motion.

  "The 'kinky' motion of a primitive spiral-shaped bacterium swimming could help design efficient micromachines, suggests a new modelling study.

"The motion of Spiroplasma swimming through fluid by sending kinks down its body has been described perfectly by a new computer model by physicists in Germany. They believe their results could be important for one day designing micromachines that might be used for microscale manufacturing or for medical procedures.

"The bacterium moves through water rather like a corkscrew in a cork of a wine bottle, reveal calculations by Netz and Hirofumi Wada also of the Technical University Munich. Such a swimming style only makes sense on the micro scale because if scaled up, Spiroplasma would be much less efficient than bacteria with flagella, since most of its swimming energy would be wasted in friction.

"On the micro scale, however, Spiroplasma's helical shape seems to be optimised for fast swimming and for efficiently converting energy into motion. It moves by sending a pair of kinks down its body as it switches its body from a right-handed spiral to a left-handed one, and vice versa. The net effect is a zig-zagging forward motion." (Dumé 2007)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Belle Dumé. 2007. 'Kinky' bacteria motion could propel micromachines. NewScientist.com [Internet], Accessed 9/24/2007.
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Spiroplasma is a genus of Mollicutes, a group of small bacteria without cell walls. Spiroplasma shares the simple metabolism, parasitic lifestyle, fried-egg colony morphology and small genome of other Mollicutes, but has a distinctive helical morphology, unlike Mycoplasma. It has a spiral shape and moves in a corkscrew motion. Most spiroplasmas are found either in the gut or haemolymph of insects, or in the phloem of plants. Spiroplasmas are fastidious organisms, which require a rich culture medium. There has been no success in culturing insect symbionts in vitro. Typically they grow well at 30 °C, but not at 37 °C. A few species, notably Spiroplasma mirum, grow well at 37 °C (human body temperature), and cause cataracts and neurological damage in suckling mice. The best studied species of spiroplasmas are Spiroplasma citri, the causative agent of Citrus Stubborn Disease, and Spiroplasma kunkelii, the causative agent of Corn Stunt Disease.

Human pathogenicity[edit]

Corn Stunt Spiroplasma in phloem cells. Thick section (0.4 micrometers) observed in a TEM. Magnified 75,000X.

There is some disputed evidence for the role of spiroplasmas in the etiology of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs), due primarily to the work of Dr. Bastian, summarized below. Other researchers have failed to replicate this work, while the prion model for TSEs has gained very wide acceptance.[1] Recent work appears to refute the role of spiroplasmas in the best small animal scrapie model (hamsters).[2] Bastian et al. (2007) have responded to this challenge with the isolation of a spiroplasma species from scrapie-infected tissue, grown it in cell-free culture, and demonstrated its infectivity in ruminants.[3]

According to Frank O. Bastian, MD:

spiroplasmas contain internal fibrillar proteins, that have morphological and immunological similarities to scrapie- and CJD-related fibrillar proteins. This comparison is noteworthy since mycoplasmologists consider these fibril proteins unique to this prokaryote.

In vivo and in vitro experimental Spiroplasma infections produce cytopathic effects similar to those of the scrapie agent. Experimental Spiroplasma brain infection in the suckling rat is characterized by vacuolar encephalopathy with localization of the microbe to gray matter.

[...] Spiralins are chemically bound to Spiroplasma-associated fibrils (SpFs) and are separated with difficulty.' SpFs are unique internal fibrils of spiroplasmas with a molecular weight of 55 kDa. Recently, SpFs have been shown to bear close morphological resemblance to scrapie-associated fibrils (SAFS), ' and show cross-reactivity using SAF antibody.[verification needed]

Insect symbioses[edit]

Currently, a Spiroplasma species is receiving attention for its protective effects against parasitic nematodes in the fruit fly Drosophila neotestacea as a model for evolution through symbiosis.[4] The Spiroplasma species restores fertility in flies infected with nematodes that otherwise sterilize females. This case study highlights a growing movement to consider heritable symbionts as important drivers in patterns of evolution.[5][6] In addition, a Spiroplasma species has been shown to kill males of the Plain Tiger butterfly on infection, leading to interesting consequences for population genetics and consequently speciation similar to the effects caused by some strains of Wolbachia.[7]


  1. ^ Leach, R. H.; Mathews, W. B. & Will, R. (1983): Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. "Failure to detect spiroplasmas by cultivation and serological tests. Journal of Neurological Science59(3): 349-353. PMID 6348215 (HTML abstract)
  2. ^ Alexeeva, I.; Elliott, E. J.; Rollins, S.; Gasparich, G. E.; Lazar, J. & Rohwer, R. G. (2006): Absence of Spiroplasma or Other Bacterial 16S rRNA Genes in Brain Tissue of Hamsters with Scrapie. Journal of Clinical Microbiology 44(1): 91-97. PMID 16390954 doi:10.1128/JCM.44.1.91-97.2006 PDF fulltext
  3. ^ Bastian, F. O.; Sanders DE, Forbes, W.A.; Hagius, S.D.; Walker, J.V.; Henk, W.G.; Enright, F.M.& Elzer, P.H. (2007): Spiroplasma spp. from transmissible spongiform encephalopathy brains or ticks induce spongiform encephalopathy in ruminants. Journal of Medical Microbiology 56(9):1235-1252. PMID 17761489 doi:10.1099/jmm.0.47159-0
  4. ^ Jaenike, J.; Unckless, L.R., Cockburn, S.N., Boelio, L.M., Perlman, S.J. (2010): "Adaptation via Symbiosis: Recent Spread of a Drosophila Defensive Symbiont. Science" 329: 212-215.
  5. ^ Jaenike, J.; Stahlhut, J.K. Boelio, L.M., Unckless, L.R. (2010): Association between Wolbachia and Spiroplasma within Drosophila neotestacea: an emerging symbiotic mutualism? Mol. Ecol. 19(2):414-425.
  6. ^ Koch, H., Schmid-Hempel, P. (2011): Socially transmitted gut microbiota protect bumble bees against an intestinal parasite. PNAS 108(48): 19288-19292.
  7. ^ 'Jiggins, F. M.; Hurst, G. D. D.; Jiggins, C. D.; Schulenburg, J. H. G. v. D. & Majerus, M. E. N. (2000): The butterfly Danaus chrysippus is infected by a male-killing Spiroplasma bacterium. Parasitology '120'(5): 439–446. doi:10.1017/S0031182099005867 (HTML abstract)
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