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Linear plasmid lp54 is one of the most highly conserved and differentially expressed elements of the segmented genome of the
Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. We previously reported that deletion of a 4.1-kb region of lp54 (bba01 to bba07 [bba01-bba07]) led to a slight attenuation of tick-transmitted infection in mice following challenge with a large number of infected ticks. In the current study, we reduced the number of ticks in the challenge to more closely mimic the natural dose and found a profound defect in tick-transmitted infection of the bba01-bba07 mutant relative to wild-type B. burgdorferi. We next focused on deletion of bba03 as the most likely cause of this mutant phenotype, as previous studies have shown that expression of bba03 is increased by culture conditions that simulate tick feeding. Consistent with this hypothesis, we demonstrated increased expression of bba03 by spirochetes in fed relative to unfed ticks. We also observed that a bba03 deletion mutant, although fully competent by itself, did not efficiently infect mice when transmitted by ticks that were simultaneously coinfected with wild-type B. burgdorferi. These results suggest that BBA03 provides a competitive advantage to spirochetes carrying this protein during tick transmission to a mammalian host in the natural infectious cycle.