It’s hard to appreciate a pubic louse as an intriguing creature in its own right. Not when an infestation with pubic lice is such a vexing experience. The same can be said for the germs that cause any number of human diseases. But, just as you might have marveled at the microorganisms you spied under the microscope in your high school biology class, the bacteria and other microbes that cause sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be fascinating, strictly as scientific subjects.
Let’s look at a few of these fascinating bacteria!
Image: Public Health Image Library, CDC
Treponema pallidum: the bacteria that cause syphilis
Before the age of antibiotics, syphilis was the most feared STD out there. Untreated, it can cause serious, sometimes fatal, damage to the body, and can also spread to a fetus during pregnancy. But did you know that earlier versions of syphilis might have been even worse?
Written records of syphilis date back to 1495 when it seemed to appear in Europe for the first time. According to a 1519 description, it caused
Boils that stood out like Acorns, from whence issued such filthy stinking Matter, that whosoever came within the Scent, believed himself infected. The Colour of these was of a dark Green and the very Aspect as shocking as the pain itself, which yet was as if the Sick had laid upon a fire.
Interestingly, such descriptions don’t match modern forms of syphilis, which suggests that it might have evolved into a less virulent form, possibly in response to selective pressure against symptoms that render the host sexually unappealing. Basically, that means that someone with boils emitting “filthy stinking Matter” might have trouble find sexual partners; the pustules of yore don’t seem to decorate the epidermis of contemporary sufferers, making them more likely to perpetuate milder forms of syphilis through sexual transmission.
We can’t hop into a time machine and take samples from European syphilitics in 1495, but some biologists believe that it took about 50 years for evolution to work its mojo on the disease, giving rise to the milder Syphilis 2.0 in the mid-1500s. Continue reading →