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The vls (variable major protein [VMP]-like sequence) locus of Borrelia burgdorferi encodes an antigenic variation system that closely resembles the VMP system of relapsing fever borreliae. To determine whether vls sequences are present consistently in low-passage, infectious isolates of B. burgdorferi, 22 blood and erythema migrans biopsy isolates from
Lyme disease patients in Westchester County, New York, were examined by Southern blot and PCR analysis. Each of the strains contained a single plasmid varying in size from 21 to 38 kb that hybridized strongly with a vlsE probe based on the B. burgdorferi B31 sequence. In contrast, PCR products were obtained with only 10 of the 22 strains when primers corresponding to the 5′ and 3′ regions of the B31 vlsE sequence outside the variable cassette region were used. Only 2 of 16 B. burgdorferi-infected tick specimens yielded detectable PCR product. Eight of 10 strains that yielded a PCR product under these conditions were type 1 (a genotype with a high rate of dissemination), according to PCR-restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis of intergenic rDNA sequences, whereas the isolates that did not yield vlsE PCR products were either type 2 or type 3. Comparison of the sequences of cloned PCR products from the patient isolates indicated a high degree of identity to the B31 sequence, with most of the differences restricted to the hypervariable regions known to undergo sequence variation. Taken together, these results both reinforce previous evidence that vls sequences are present consistently in low-passage
Lyme disease spirochetes and indicate that both highly conserved and heterogeneous subgroups exist with regard to vlsE sequences.