The outer surface protein, OspC, is highly variable in Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto, the agent of
Lyme disease. We have shown that even within a single population OspC is highly variable. The variation of ospA and ospC in the 40 infected deer ticks collected from a single site on Shelter Island, New York, was determined using PCR-SSCP. There is very strong apparent linkage disequilibrium between ospA and ospC alleles, even though they are located on separate plasmids. Thirteen discernible SSCP mobility classes for ospC were identified and the DNA sequence for each was determined. These sequences, combined with 40 GenBank sequences, allow us to define 19 major ospC groups. Sequences within a major ospC group are, on average, <1% different from each other, while sequences between major ospC groups are, on average, approximately 20% different. The tick sample contains 11 major ospC groups, GenBank contains 16 groups, with 8 groups found in both samples. Thus, the ospC variation within a local population is almost as great as the variation of a similar-sized sample of the entire species. The Ewens-Watterson-Slatkin test of allele frequency showed significant deviation from the neutral expectation, indicating balancing selection for these major ospC groups. The variation represented by major ospC groups needs to be considered if the OspC protein is to be used as a serodiagnostic antigen or a vaccine.