Treponema denticola is an anaerobic, motile, oral spirochete associated with periodontal disease. We found that the periplasmic flagella (PFs), which are located between the outer membrane sheath and cell cylinder, influence its morphology in a unique manner. In addition, the protein composition of the PFs was found to be quite complex and similar to those of other spirochetes. Dark-field microscopy revealed that most wild-type cells had an irregular twisted morphology, with both planar and helical regions, and a minority of cells had a regular right-handed helical shape. High-voltage electron microscopy indicated that the PFs, especially in those regions of the cell which were planar, wrapped around the cell body axis in a right- handed sense. In those regions of the cell which were helical or irregular, the PFs tended to lie along the cell axis. The PFs caused the cell to form the irregular shape, as two nonmotile, PF-deficient mutants (JRI and HL51) were no longer irregular but were right-handed helices. JR1 was isolated as a spontaneously occurring nonmotile mutant, and HL51 was isolated as a site- directed mutant in the flagellar hook gene flgE. Consistent with these results is the finding that wild-type cells with their outer membrane sheath removed were also right-handed helices similar in shape to JR1 and HL51. Purified PFs were analyzed by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, and several protein species were identified. Western blot analysis using antisera to Treponema pallidum PF proteins along with N-terminal amino acid sequence analysis indicated T. denticola PFs are composed of one class A sheath protein of 38 kDa (FlaA) and three class B proteins of 35 kDa (FlaB1 and FlaB2) and one of 34 kDa (FlaB3). The N-terminal amino acid sequences of the FlaA and FlaB proteins of T. denticola were most similar to those of T. pallidum and Treponema phagedenis. Because these proteins were present in markedly reduced amounts or were absent in HL51, PF synthesis is likely to be regulated in a hierarchy similar to that found far flagellar synthesis in other bacteria.