The Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, causes a persistent infection in the vertebrate host even though infected animals mount an active immune response against the spirochete. One strategy used by the spirochete to evade vertebrate host immunity is to vary the structure and expression of outer membrane antigens. The vlsE locus represents the best-studied example of antigenic variation in B. burgdorferi. During vertebrate host infection, recombination between the active vlsE locus and silent, partial vlsE copies leads to gene conversion events and the generation of novel alleles at the expression site. In the present study, we followed a population of B. burgdorferi organisms moving through vertebrate host and tick stages to complete one transmission cycle. The major goal of the study was to determine if the vlsE locus was subject to different selective pressure and/or recombination frequency at different stages of the spirochete's life cycle. We report here that the vlsE genetic diversity generated within the rodent host was maintained through the larval and nymphal tick stages. Therefore, naturally infected ticks are likely to transmit spirochete populations with multiple vlsE alleles into naive vertebrate hosts. Although vlsE genetic diversity in mice was maintained through tick stages, the dominant vlsE alleles were different between tick stages as well as between individual ticks. We propose that population-level bottlenecks experienced by spirochetes, especially during the larval-to-nymphal molt, are responsible for individual infected ticks harboring different dominant vlsE alleles. Although vlsE genetic diversity is maintained through tick stages, the VlsE protein is unlikely to be of functional importance in the vector, because the protein was expressed by very few (<1%) bacteria in the vector.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Molecular Biology