The spirochetes that cause Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) and syphilis (Treponema pallidum) swim through viscous fluids, such as blood and interstitial fluid, by undulating their bodies as traveling, planar waves. These undulations are driven by rotation of the flagella within the periplasmic space, the narrow (∼20-40 nm in width) compartment between the inner and outer membranes. We show here that the swimming speeds of B. burgdorferi and T. pallidum decrease with increases in viscosity of the external aqueous milieu, even though the flagella are entirely intracellular. We then use mathematical modeling to show that the measured changes in speed are consistent with the exertion of constant torque by the spirochetal flagellar motors. Comparison of simulations, experiments, and a simple model for power dissipation allows us to estimate the torque and resistive drag that act on the flagella of these major spirochetal pathogens.
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