Borrelias that cause
Lyme disease lose the ability to infect and cause
disease in laboratory animals following 10 to 16 passages of in vitro culture. In this study, clonal populations of the Sh-2-82 (Sh2) and B31 strains of Borrelia burgdorferi were isolated by subsurface plating on BSK-II agar plates and examined for infectivity in the C3H/HeN mouse model. Mice were injected intradermally with 10(5) B. burgdorferi organisms, and the tibiotarsal joint, heart, and bladder were cultured 2 to 4 weeks postinfection to determine whether viable organisms were present. Clones exhibited either a high-infectivity phenotype, in which cultures were consistently positive at all organ sites, or a low-infectivity phenotype, in which a low proportion of cultures were positive (5 of 40 in a representative experiment). In an Sh2 population that had undergone five in vitro passages, 7 of 10 clones were of the high-infectivity phenotype, and the remaining clones were of the low-infectivity phenotype. The proportion of high-infectivity clones decreased with continued in vitro passage, with only 1 of 10 clones exhibiting the high-infectivity phenotype after 10 passages and 0 of 10 clones yielding positive cultures after 20 passages. Representative high- and low-infectivity clones from passage 5 Sh2 cultures had 50% infectious doses of 1.8 x 10(2) and 1 x 10(5), respectively. Subclones consistently reflected the same infectivity phenotypes as those of the parent clones. The protein profiles and plasmid contents of the high- and low-infectivity clones were compared and exhibited few discernible differences. On the basis of these results, the loss of infectivity during in vitro culture results from the outgrowth of low-infectivity clones and begins to occur within the first five in vitro passages. Further examination of clonal populations may lead to the identification of genetic and protein factors important in the virulence and pathogenicity of
Lyme disease borrelias.