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Over 80% of reported cases of
Lyme disease in the United States occur in coastal regions of northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. The genetic structure of the
Lyme disease spirochete (Borrelia burgdorferi) and its main tick vector (Ixodes scapularis) was studied concurrently and comparatively by sampling natural populations of I. scapularis ticks along the East Coast from 1996 to 1998. Borrelia is genetically highly diverse at the outer surface protein ospC. Since Borrelia is highly clonal, the ospC alleles can be used to define clones. A newly designed reverse line blotting (RLB) assay shows that up to 10 Borrelia clones can infect a single tick. The clone frequencies in Borrelia populations are the same across the Northeast. On the other hand, I. scapularis populations show strong regional divergence (among northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and southern states) as well as local differentiation. The high genetic diversity within Borrelia populations and the disparity in the genetic structure between Borrelia and its tick vector are likely consequences of strong balancing selection on local Borrelia clones. Demographically, both Borrelia and I. scapularis populations in the Northeast show the characteristics of a species that has recently expanded from a population bottleneck. Major geological and ecological events, such as the last glacial maximum (18,000 years ago) and the modern-day expansion of tick habitats, are likely causes of the observed "founder effects" for the two organisms in the Northeast. We therefore conclude that the genetic structure of B. burgdorferi has been intimately shaped by the natural history of its main vector, the northern lineage of I. scapularis ticks.