The loss of linear plasmid lp28-1, which contains the vls antigenic variation locus, is associated with reduced infectivity of Borrelia burgdorferi in immunocompetent mice. The recombinant shuttle vector pBBE22, which includes the virulence determinant BBE22 from lp25 and restores infectivity to readily transformable B. burgdorferi lacking lp25 and lp56, was used to determine the effect of trans expression of vlsE on virulence. Spirochetes lacking lp28-1 were complemented with the plasmid pBBE22:vlsE, containing both BBE22 and vlsE. VlsE protein produced by this construct was expressed and surface accessible in in vitro-cultured B. burgdorferi, as determined by surface proteolysis and immunoblot analysis. Clones lacking lp25 but containing lp28-1 and either pBBE22 or pBBE22:vlsE were reisolated consistently from immunocompetent mice 8 weeks after infection. In contrast, a clone lacking both lp25 and lp28-1 and complemented with pBBE22:vlsE was isolated from only a single tissue of one of six C3H/HeN mice 8 weeks postinfection. These results indicate that either an intact vls antigenic variation locus or another determinant on lp28-1 is required to restore complete infectivity. In addition, an isogenic clone that retained lp28-1 was complemented with the vlsE shuttle plasmid and was examined for vlsE sequence variation and infectivity. Sequence variation was not observed for the shuttle plasmid, indicating that the cis arrangement of vlsE and the vls silent cassettes in lp28-1 facilitate vlsE gene conversion. Lack of vlsE sequence variation on the shuttle plasmid thus did not result in clearance of the trans-complemented strain in immunocompetent mice under the conditions tested.