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Antibodies to the outer surface proteins (Osps) A, B, and C of the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi can prevent infection in animal models of
Lyme borreliosis. We have previously demonstrated that immune serum from mice infected with B. burgdorferi N40 can also prevent challenge infection and induce
disease regression in infected mice. The antigens targeted by protective and
disease-modulating antibodies are presently unknown, but they do not include Osp A or Osp B. Because Osp C antibodies are present in immune mouse serum, we investigated the ability of hyperimmune serum to recombinant Osp C (N40) to protect mice against challenge infection with N40 spirochetes. In both active and passive immunization studies, Osp C (N40) antiserum failed to protect mice from challenge infection with cultured organisms. Mice actively immunized with recombinant Osp C (N40) were susceptible to tick-borne challenge infection, and nymphal ticks remained infected after feeding on Osp C-hyperimmunized mice. In contrast, similar immunization studies performed with Osp C (PKo) antiserum prevented challenge infection of mice with a clone of PKo spirochetes pathogenic for mice. Both Osp C (N40) and Osp C (PKo) antisera showed minimal in vitro borreliacidal activity, and immunofluorescence studies localized Osp C beneath the outer membrane of both N40 and PKo spirochetes. We conclude that Osp C antibody-mediated immunity is strain specific and propose that differences in Osp C surface expression by spirochetes in vivo may account for strain-specific immunity.