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During natural infection with the agent of
Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNL) are the first cells of the innate immune system to arrive at the site of spirochete deposition in the skin. This study examined the degree of spirochete clearance likely to occur with PMNL or mononuclear cells before the development of the secondary immune response. Without specific antibody in vitro, there was very limited uptake of spirochetes by PMNL or monocytes and no intracellular colocalization of PMNL granule products with spirochetes. Most of the killing of spirochetes by PMNL was extracellular. In contrast, mature macrophages ingest and kill spirochetes avidly with or without specific antibody. Once the spirochetes are opsonized, PMNL clear them rapidly. These findings may be relevant to the initial survival of spirochetes introduced into the host.