Borrelia burgdorferi alternates between ticks and mammals, requiring variable gene expression and protein production to adapt to these diverse niches. These adaptations include shifting among the major outer surface lipoproteins OspA, OspC, and VlsE at different stages of the infectious cycle. We hypothesize that these proteins carry out a basic but essential function, and that OspC and VlsE fulfil this requirement during early and persistent stages of mammalian infection respectively. Previous work by other investigators suggested that several B. burgdorferi lipoproteins, including OspA and VlsE, could substitute for OspC at the initial stage of mouse infection, when OspC is transiently but absolutely required. In this study, we assessed whether vlsE and ospA could restore infectivity to an ospC mutant, and found that neither gene product effectively compensated for the absence of OspC during early infection. In contrast, we determined that OspC production was required by B. burgdorferi throughout SCID mouse infection if the vlsE gene were absent. Together, these results indicate that OspC can substitute for VlsE when antigenic variation is unnecessary, but that these two abundant lipoproteins are optimized for their related but specific roles during early and persistent mammalian infection by B. burgdorferi.
Published 2013. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.