Hamsters were immunized with thimerosal-killed Borrelia burgdorferi 297 or a mutant of 297 (M297) that lacks the 49-kb linear plasmid and expression of outer surface proteins A and B (OspA and OspB). Ixodes scapularis nymphs infected with either the B. burgdorferi sensu stricto strain 297 or JMNT, similar in OspA and OspB but differing in OspC expression, were used to evaluate protection. In a homologous challenge, 24 hamsters were vaccinated, 8 each with 297 or M297 and 8 sham (adjuvant)-vaccinated controls. Hamsters vaccinated with either bacterin were completely protected against a natural tick bite or subcutaneous (s.c.) inoculation of 297. Borreliae were effectively eliminated from 80 to 90% of the 297-infected ticks that fed on four hamsters immunized with the 297 bacterin. Cultures of spirochetes isolated from the ticks that remained infected were infectious and induced joint inflammation in naive hamsters. There was no reduction of strain 297 spirochetes in ticks that fed on four hamsters immunized with M297, but the hamsters were protected. Results with the M297 bacterin indicate that proteins other than OspA or OspB can protect hamsters against a tick challenge without eliminating B. burgdorferi in the tick. In a heterologous challenge, 36 hamsters were vaccinated, 12 with each bacterin and 12 controls. None of the hamsters immunized with either bacterin were protected from a challenge involving JMNT-infected ticks, while two of four were protected against an s.c. challenge. Hamsters challenged s.c. with strain 297 spirochetes were protected. There was partial elimination of JMNT spirochetes in ticks that fed on the group of four hamsters immunized with the 297 bacterin, and infection rates were reduced by 50 to 60%. JMNT spirochetes reisolated from the ticks that fed on 297-vaccinated hamsters also remained infectious for hamsters. In the JMNT-infected ticks that fed on four M297-immunized hamsters, there was no decline in the proportion of infected ticks. Destruction of spirochetes in ticks that fed on the hamsters vaccinated with the 297 bacterin suggests that antibodies to OspA and OspB may have been responsible, since the mutant did not induce this activity.