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All isolates of the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi contain multiple, different plasmids of the cp32 family, each of which contains a locus encoding Erp surface proteins. Many of these proteins are known to bind host complement regulatory factor H, enabling the bacteria to avoid killing by the alternative complement pathway during vertebrate infection. In the present study, we characterized the erp loci and cp32 plasmids of strains N40, Sh-2-82, and 297 and compared them to the previously determined cp32 sequences of type strain B31. Bacteria of strain N40 contain 6 different cp32s, those of Sh-2-82 contain 10, and 297 bacteria contain 9 cp32s. Significant conservation between all strains was noted for the cp32 loci responsible for plasmid maintenance, indicating close relationships that appear to correspond with incompatibility groups. In contrast, considerable diversity was found between erp gene sequences, both within individual bacteria and between different strains. However, examples of identities among erp loci were found, with strains Sh-2-82, 297, and B31 each containing three identical loci that likely arose through intrabacterial genetic rearrangements. These studies also found the first evidence of large-scale genetic exchanges between
Lyme disease spirochetes in nature, including the apparent transfer of an entire cp32 plasmid between two different bacteria.