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PLoS Pathogens


Public Library of Science

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Biology | Diseases | Immunology and Infectious Disease | Life Sciences


Borrelia hermsii, a causative agent of relapsing fever of humans in western North America, is maintained in enzootic cycles that include small mammals and the tick vector Ornithodoros hermsi. In mammals, the spirochetes repeatedly evade the host’s acquired immune response by undergoing antigenic variation of the variable major proteins (Vmps) produced on their outer surface. This mechanism prolongs spirochete circulation in blood, which increases the potential for acquisition by fast-feeding ticks and therefore perpetuation of the spirochete in nature. Antigenic variation also underlies the relapsing disease observed when humans are infected. However, most spirochetes switch off the bloodstream Vmp and produce a different outer surface protein, the variable tick protein (Vtp), during persistent infection in the tick salivary glands. Thus the production of Vmps in mammalian blood versus Vtp in ticks is a dominant feature of the spirochete’s alternating life cycle. We constructed two mutants, one which was unable to produce a Vmp and the other was unable to produce Vtp. The mutant lacking a Vmp constitutively produced Vtp, was attenuated in mice, produced lower cell densities in blood, and was unable to relapse in animals after its initial spirochetemia. This mutant also colonized ticks and was infectious by tick-bite, but remained attenuated compared to wild-type and reconstituted spirochetes. The mutant lacking Vtp also colonized ticks but produced neither Vtp nor a Vmp in tick salivary glands, which rendered the spirochete noninfectious by tick bite. Thus the ability of B. hermsii to produce Vmps prolonged its survival in blood, while the synthesis of Vtp was essential for mammalian infection by the bite of its tick vector.




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