Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochetal agent of
Lyme disease, is transmitted by Ixodes ticks. A vaccine based on B. burgdorferi outer surface protein (Osp) A protects mice from spirochete infection. Here we report on the expression of OspA on spirochetes inside engorging ticks and relate OspA expression to antispirochetal immunity. Spirochetes in the gut of unfed nymphal ticks were stained by an OspA antibody, whereas in feeding ticks, the majority of spirochetes in the gut and salivary glands did not stain with the antibody. Thus, OspA was not expressed on most spirochetes during transmission from the vector to the vertebrate host. To examine the mechanism of protection afforded by OspA antibody, mice were passively immunized with OspA antibody at different times relative to tick attachment. When OspA antibody was administered to mice before or at the time of tick attachment, spirochetal development events in the vector, such as growth and salivary gland invasion, were blocked and the mice were protected from B. burgdorferi infection. When OspA antibody was administered to mice 48 h after tick attachment, spirochetes persisted in the nymphs and the mice were not protected despite the presence of circulating antibodies in the host as well as in the tick blood meal. Thus, OspA immunity appears to be effective only during a narrow window time at the beginning of the blood meal when antibodies bind to OspA-expressing spirochetes in the tick gut and block transmission from the vector to the host.