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A series of related genes that are flanked at their 5′ ends by a conserved upstream sequence element called the upstream homology box (UHB) have been identified in Borrelia burgdorferi. These genes have been referred to as the UHB or erp gene family. We previously demonstrated that among a limited number of B. burgdorferi isolates, the UHB gene family is variable in composition and organization. Prior to this report the UHB gene family in other species of the B. burgdorferi sensu lato complex had not been studied, and if this family is important in the pathogenesis or biology of the
Lyme disease spirochetes, then a wide distribution among species and isolates of the B. burgdorferi sensu lato complex would be expected. To assess this, we screened for the UHB element by Southern hybridization and determined its restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) patterns. The UHB element was found to be carried by all B. burgdorferi sensu lato complex species tested (B. burgdorferi, B. garinii, B. afzelii, B. japonica, B. valaisiana sp. nov., and B. andersonii), but the RFLP patterns varied widely at both the inter- and intraspecies levels. Variation in both the number and size of the hybridizing restriction fragments was evident. PCR analyses also revealed the presence of polymorphic, ospE-related alleles in many isolates. Sequence analyses identified the molecular basis of the polymorphisms as being primarily insertions and deletions. Sequence variation and the insertions and deletions were found to be clustered in two distinct domains (variable domains 1 and 2). In many isolates variable domain 1 is flanked by direct repeat elements, some as long as 38 bp. Computer analyses of the deduced amino acid sequences encoded within variable domain 1 predict them to be hydrophilic, surface exposed, and antigenic. The analyses conducted here suggest that the UHB gene family, as evidenced by the variable UHB RFLP patterns, is not evolutionarily stable and that the polymorphic ospE alleles are derived from a common ancestral gene which has been modified through mutation or recombination events. The characterization of ospE-related genes of the UHB gene family among B. burgdorferi sensu lato species will prove important in attempts to construct a model for UHB gene family organization and in deciphering the role of the UHB gene family in the biology and pathogenesis of the
Lyme disease spirochetes.