Background Periodontal diseases, such as periodontitis, are chronic inflammatory infections affecting the gingivae (gums), underlying connective tissues and bone that support the teeth. Oral treponemes (genus Treponema) are widely-considered to play important roles in periodontal disease etiology and pathogenesis; however, precise relationships remain to be fully established. Methods A 16S rRNA clone library-based approach was used to comprehensively characterize and compare the diversity of treponeme taxa present in subgingival plaque sampled from periodontitis patients (n = 10) versus periodontitis-free controls (n = 10). 16S rRNA gene sequences were assigned to operational taxonomic units (OTUs) using a 99% identity cut-off A variety of taxonomy (OTU) and phylogeny-based statistical approaches were used to compare populations of treponeme OTUs present in both subject groups. Results A total of 615 plasmid clones containing ca. 1500 bp Treponema 16S rRNA gene sequences were obtained; 365 from periodontitis subjects, 250 from periodontitis-free controls. These were assigned to 110 treponeme OTUs. 93 OTUs were detected in the periodontitis subjects (mean 9.3 ± 5.2 OTUs per subject; range 9–26), and 43 OTUs were detected in controls (mean 4.3 ± 5.9 OTUs per subject; range 3–20). OTUs belonging to oral treponeme phylogroups 1–7 were detected in both subject sets. Phylogroup 1 treponemes had the highest levels of OTU richness (diversity) and clonal abundance within both subject groups. Levels of OTU richness and clonal abundance of phylogroup 2 treponemes were significantly higher in the periodontitis subjects (Mann Whitney U-test, p < 0.001). Both OTU-based and phylogeny-based analyses clearly indicated that there were significant differences in the composition of treponeme communities present in periodontitis versus control subjects. The detection frequency of five OTUs showed a statistically-significant correlation with disease status. The OTU (8P47) that corresponded to the type strain of Treponema denticola had the strongest association with periodontitis (p < 0.01). Conclusions Higher levels of treponeme taxon richness and clonal abundance were associated with periodontitis. However, our results clearly indicated that subjects free from clinical symptoms of periodontal disease also contained highly diverse populations of treponeme bacteria within their subgingival microbiota. Our data supports the hypothesis that specific treponeme taxa are associated with periodontal disease.