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Plasmid DNA encoding the outer surface lipoprotein A (OspA) of Borrelia burgdorferi under the control of either strong eukaryotic/viral or its own bacterial promoter was injected intramuscularly (m. tibialis anterior) or intradermally into BALB/c and AKR/N mice. OspA-specific antibodies and OspA-reactive T helper 1 cells (Th1) were induced only with those plasmids containing the ospA structural gene including its own regulatory control region immediately upstream. In the absence of the ospA promoter, no or only marginal immune responses to OspA were obtained, even when strong eukaryotic promoter/enhancer elements were present. Together with the finding that the ospA promoter is active in a mouse B-lymphoma line, the data suggest that spirochetes are able to express at least part of their genes in the mammalian environment. Mice previously vaccinated with the relevant ospA plasmid DNA were protected against subsequent experimental challenge with a virulent strain of B. burgdorferi, as measured by the appearance of antibodies to a prominent protective epitope (LA-2) and the failure to re-isolate spirochetes from ear biopsies. In addition, C.B-17 severe-combined immunodeficient mice could be protected against infection by passive transfer of immune sera from ospA plasmid DNA-inoculated normal mice. Protective LA-2-related antibody titers obtained after repeated immunization persisted for 200 days and longer. This simple procedure of immunization using plasmid DNA consisting of a prokaryotic gene under the control of its own promoter holds great promise for the development of alternative subunit vaccines against bacterial infections, including
Lyme disease. In addition, the availability of this novel prokaryotic promoter element now allows the study of the basis for the differential expression of bacterial genes in prokaryotic and eukaryotic environments.