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Borrelia burgdorferi, the
Lyme disease spirochete, persistently infects mammalian hosts despite the development of strong humoral responses directed against the pathogen. Here we describe a novel mechanism of immune evasion by B. burgdorferi. In immunocompetent mice, spirochetes that did not express ospC (the outer-surface protein C gene) were selected within 17 d after inoculation, concomitantly with the emergence of anti-OspC antibody. Spirochetes with no detectable OspC transcript that were isolated from immunocompetent mice reexpressed ospC after they were either cultured in vitro or transplanted to naive immunocompetent mice, but not in OspC-immunized mice. B. burgdorferi persistently expressed ospC in severe combined immune-deficient (SCID) mice. Passive immunization of B. burgdorferi-infected SCID mice with an anti-OspC monoclonal antibody selectively eliminated ospC-expressing spirochetes but did not clear the infection. OspC-expressing spirochetes reappeared in SCID mice after the anti-OspC antibody was eliminated. We submit that selection of surface-antigen nonexpressers is an immune evasion mechanism that contributes to spirochetal persistence.