The immune response to the VlsE antigenic variation protein of Borrelia burgdorferi

Matthew Bryan Lawrenz, The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston


The spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb) is the causative agent of Lyme disease. During infection, a strong immune response is elicited towards Bb by its host; however, the organism is able to persist and to disseminate to many different tissues. The vls locus is located on the linear plasmid lp28-1, a plasmid shown to be important for virulence in the mouse model. During infection, vlsE undergoes antigenic variation through a series of gene conversions, which results in the insertion of sequences from the silent, unexpressed cassettes into the vlsE cassette. We hypothesize that this antigenic variation is important in the spirochete's ability to persist within mammals by allowing it to evade the immune system. To define the role of vls in immune evasion, the immune response against VlsE was determined by using a recombinant form of VlsE (VlsE1-His) as an antigen to screen patient sera. Lyme patients produce antibodies that recognize VlsE, and these antibodies are present throughout the course of disease. Immunization with the VlsE1-His protein provided protection against infection with Bb expressing the same variant of VlsE (VlsE1), but was only partially protective when mice were infected with organisms expressing VlsE variants; however, subsequent VlsE immunization studies yielded inconsistent protection. Successful immunizations produced different antibody reactivities to VlsE epitopes than non-protective immunizations, but the reason for this variable response is unclear. In the process of developing genetic approaches to transform infectious Bb, it was determined that the transformation barrier posed by plasmids lp25 and lp56 could be circumvented by replacing the required lp25 gene pncA. To characterize the role of vlsE in infectivity, Bb lacking lp28-1 were complemented with a shuttle plasmid containing the lp25 encoded virulence determinant pncA and vlsE. Complemented spirochetes express VlsE, but the gene does not undergo antigenic variation and infectivity in the mouse model was not restored, indicating that either antigenic variation of vlsE is necessary for survival in the mouse model or that other genes on lp28-1 are important for virulence.

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Recommended Citation

Lawrenz, Matthew Bryan, "The immune response to the VlsE antigenic variation protein of Borrelia burgdorferi" (2003). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3083498.