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It has been demonstrated recently that cells of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato, the etiological agent of
Lyme disease, transform from mobile spirochetes into nonmotile cystic forms in the presence of certain unfavourable conditions, and that cystic forms are able to reconvert to vegetative spirochetes in vitro and in vivo. The purpose of this study was to investigate the kinetics of conversion of borreliae to cysts in different stress conditions such as starvation media or the presence of different antibiotics. Using the same experimental conditions we also investigated the possible role in cyst formation of RpoS, an alternative sigma factor that controls a regulon in response to starvation and transition to stationary phase. We observed that beta-lactams penicillin G and ceftriaxone, the antibiotics of choice in
Lyme borreliosis treatment, favoured the production of cysts when used with serum-depleted BSK medium. In contrast, we observed a low level of cyst formation in the presence of macrolides and tetracyclines. In order to elucidate the role of the rpoS gene in cyst formation we analyzed the reaction of the rpoS mutant strain in comparison with its wild-type in different conditions. Under the same stimuli, both the wild-type borrelia and the rpoS knock-out isogenic strain produced cystic forms with similar kinetics, thus excluding the participation of the gene in this phenomenon. Our findings suggest that cyst formation is mainly due to a physical-chemical rearrangement of the outer membrane of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato leading to membrane fusion and controlled by different regulation mechanisms.