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Antigenic variation is an effective strategy evolved by pathogenic microbes to avoid immune destruction. Variable Ags such as the variable major protein of Borrelia hermsii, the variant surface glycoprotein of African trypanosomes, and the pilin of Neisseria gonorrhoeae include an immunodominant variable domain and one or more invariable domains that are not antigenic. Short, nonantigenic, invariable regions also may be present within the variable domain. VlsE (variable major protein-like sequence, expressed), the variable surface Ag of Borrelia burgdorferi, the
Lyme disease spirochete, also contains both variable and invariable domains. In addition, interspersed within the VlsE variable domain there are six invariable regions (IR1-6) that together amount to half of this portion’s primary structure. We show here that these IRs are conserved among strains and genospecies of the B. burgdorferi sensu lato complex. Surprisingly, unlike the invariable regions of variable major protein, variant surface glycoprotein, and pilin, which are not antigenic in natural infections, the most conserved of the IRs, IR6, is immunodominant in
Lyme disease patients and in monkeys infected with B. burgdorferi. IR6 is exposed on the surface of VlsE, as assessed by immunoprecipitation experiments, but is inaccessible to Ab on the spirochete’s outer membrane, as demonstrated by immunofluorescence and in vitro killing assays. VlsE thus significantly departs from the antigenic variation paradigm, whereby immunodominance is only manifest in variable portions. We submit that IR6 may act as a decoy epitope(s) and contribute to divert the Ab response from other, perhaps protective regions of VlsE.