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Mol Microbiol. 2003 Mar;47(5):1433-44.

Adaptation of the Lyme disease spirochaete to the mammalian host environment results in enhanced glycosaminoglycan and host cell binding.

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Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA 01655, USA.


The Lyme disease spirochaete, Borrelia burgdorferi, is transmitted to mammals by Ixodes ticks and can infect multiple tissues. Host cell attachment may be critical for tissue colonization, and B. burgdorferi cultivated in vitro recognizes heparin- and dermatan sulphate-related glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) on the surface of mammalian cells. To determine whether growth of the spirochaete in the mammalian host alters GAG binding, we assessed the cell attachment activities of B. burgdorferi grown in vitro or in dialysis membrane chambers implanted intraperitoneally in rats. Host-adapted B. burgdorferi exhibited approximately threefold better binding to purified heparin and dermatan sulphate and to GAGs expressed on the surface of cultured endothelial cells. Three B. burgdorferi surface proteins, Bgp, DbpA and DbpB, have been demonstrated previously to bind to GAGs or to GAG-containing molecules, and we show here that recombinant derivatives of each of these proteins were able to bind to purified heparin and dermatan sulphate. Immunofluorescent staining of in vitro-cultivated or host-adapted spirochaetes revealed that DbpA and DbpB were present on the bacterial surface at higher levels after host adaptation. Recombinant Bgp, DbpA and DbpB each partially inhibited attachment of host-adapted B. burgdorferi to cultured mammalian cells, consistent with the hypothesis that these proteins may promote attachment of B. burgdorferi during growth in the mammalian host. Nevertheless, the partial nature of this inhibition suggests that multiple pathways promote mammalian cell attachment by B. burgdorferi in vivo. Given the observed increase in cell attachment activity upon growth in the mammalian host, analysis of host-adapted bacteria will facilitate identification of the cell binding pathways used in vivo.

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