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The prokaryotic, spirochaetal microorganism Borrelia burgdorferi is the causative agent of
Lyme disease, an arthropod-borne
disease of a variety of vertebrates and the most prevalent arthropod-borne
disease of humans in the United States. In order to understand better the normal life cycle of B. burgdorferi, an experimental chain of infection was devised that involved multiple sequential arthropod and mammalian passages. By examining populations of B. burgdorferi emerging from different points in this infectious chain, we demonstrate that selection of B. burgdorferi populations peculiar to arthropod or vertebrate hosts is a property of at least one of the two ecologically distinct strains we examined. Distinct B. burgdorferi populations were identified using an antigenic profile, defined by a set of monoclonal antibodies to eight B. burgdorferi antigens, and a plasmid profile, defined by the naturally occurring plasmids in the starting clonal populations. These two profiles constituted the phenotypical signature of the population. In the strain exhibiting selection in the different hosts, transition from one host to another produced a striking series of alternating phenotypical signatures down the chain of infection. At the molecular level, the alternating signatures were manifested as a reciprocal relationship between the expression of certain antigenic forms of outer surface protein (Osp) B and OspC. In the case of OspC, the antigenic changes could be correlated to the presence of one of two distinctly different alleles of the ospC gene in a full-length and presumably transcriptionally active state. In the case of OspB, two alleles were again identified. However, their differences were minor and their relationship to OspB antigenic variation more complicated. In addition to the reciprocating changes in the antigenic profile, a reciprocating change in the size (probably the multimeric state) of a 9.0 kbp supercoiled plasmid was also noted. Selection of distinct populations in the tick may be responsible for the microorganism’s ability to infect a wide range of vertebrate hosts efficiently, in that the tick might provide selective pressure for the elimination of the population selected in the previous host.