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PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2011 Nov;5(11):e1273. doi: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0001273. Epub 2011 Nov 8.

Molecular typing of Treponema pallidum: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

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National Center for STD Control, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College Institute of Dermatology, Nanjing, China.



Syphilis is resurgent in many regions of the world. Molecular typing is a robust tool for investigating strain diversity and epidemiology. This study aimed to review original research on molecular typing of Treponema pallidum (T. pallidum) with three objectives: (1) to determine specimen types most suitable for molecular typing; (2) to determine T. pallidum subtype distribution across geographic areas; and (3) to summarize available information on subtypes associated with neurosyphilis and macrolide resistance.


Two researchers independently searched five databases from 1998 through 2010, assessed for eligibility and study quality, and extracted data. Search terms included "Treponema pallidum," or "syphilis," combined with the subject headings "molecular," "subtyping," "typing," "genotype," and "epidemiology." Sixteen eligible studies were included. Publication bias was not statistically significant by the Begg rank correlation test. Medians, inter-quartile ranges, and 95% confidence intervals were determined for DNA extraction and full typing efficiency. A random-effects model was used to perform subgroup analyses to reduce obvious between-study heterogeneity. Primary and secondary lesions and ear lobe blood specimens had an average higher yield of T. pallidum DNA (83.0% vs. 28.2%, χ(2) = 247.6, p<0.001) and an average higher efficiency of full molecular typing (80.9% vs. 43.1%, χ(2) = 102.3, p<0.001) compared to plasma, whole blood, and cerebrospinal fluid. A pooled analysis of subtype distribution based on country location showed that 14d was the most common subtype, and subtype distribution varied across geographic areas. Subtype data associated with macrolide resistance and neurosyphilis were limited.


Primary lesion was a better specimen for obtaining T. pallidum DNA than blood. There was wide geographic variation in T. pallidum subtypes. More research is needed on the relationship between clinical presentation and subtype, and further validation of ear lobe blood for obtaining T. pallidum DNA would be useful for future molecular studies of syphilis.

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