We investigated the association between complement resistance and phenotypes of pathogenicity of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato isolates cultivated in a LEW/N rat tibiotarsal joint-derived tissue feeder layer-supported co-culture system. Guinea pig complement and immune serum raised in LHS/Ss hamsters caused complete lysis of B. burgdorferi sensu stricto isolate 297, B. afzelii and B. garinii in Barbour-Stoenner-Kelly’s medium; however, tissue co-cultured B. burgdorferi sensu stricto contained complement escape variants. The arthritogenicity and infectivity of these variants were tested in 3-week-old Syrian hamsters and in a vaccinated hamster model in which formalin-killed B. burgdorferi sensu stricto C-1-11 vaccinated animals develop severe arthritis after challenge with live, pathogenic, low-passage 297 isolate. Non-animal-passaged complement escape variants were infectious in both animal models as demonstrated by re-isolation from the infected animals and competitive PCR. IP injection of animal-passaged complement escape variants caused development of severe arthritis in vaccinated animals 5 weeks post-injection; animal passage of complement escape variants was necessary for isolation of arthritogenic spirochetes from high-passaged, non-arthritogenic, attenuated borrelia cultures. Complement escape variants synthesized outer surface protein E as demonstrated by SDS-PAGE and western blotting analyses. The complement-mediated selection technique in tissue co-culture provides a novel approach to the studies of
Lyme disease, enables us to isolate pathogenically distinct borrelia populations from attenuated cultures and prepare a moderately infectious, non-pathogenic live vaccine against this illness.