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Res Microbiol. 1992 Jul-Aug;143(6):583-96.

Antigenic variation and strain heterogeneity in Borrelia spp.

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Max von Pettenkofer Institut für Hygiene and Medizinische Mikrobiologie, Universität München, Germany.


Antigenic variation and strain heterogeneity have been demonstrated for the pathogenic Borrelia species, i.e. B. burgdorferi and the relapsing fever borreliae. In relapsing fever, new borrelia serotypes emerge at a high rate spontaneously, a mechanism that is caused by DNA rearrangements on linear plasmid translocating genes coding for variable major proteins from previous silent to expression sites (i.e. from inner sites to telomeric sites of the plasmid). As a result of this variation, the borreliae escape the immune response of the host, thus leading to the relapse phenomenon. In B. burgdorferi, which is the causative agent of the multisystem disorder Lyme borreliosis, there is also a growing body of findings that antigenic variation is involved in pathogenesis of the disease. Phenotypic variation of strains in vitro concerns the size and the amount of surface-associated proteins (OspA, OspB and pC). There are indications that OspA and OspB truncations are due to deletions within the ospAB operon caused by recombination events, and that OspA/OspB-less mutants lack the 49-kb plasmid that bears the ospAB operon. With the increasing number of isolates obtained from various geographic and biological sources, it became apparent that B. burgdorferi is immunologically and genetically more heterogeneous, as previously believed. The major outer surface proteins OspA and OspB (which have been efficient antigens in vaccine studies) are heterogeneous at a genetic level. The same degree of genetic non-identity was observed for the pC protein. Other proteins like flagellin and the highly specific immunodominant p100 range protein show a lower degree of non-identity. Recombinant OspA, pC, p100 range protein and flagellin have been hyperexpressed in E. coli and these proteins are immunologically reactive. This allows further research for development of vaccines and diagnostic tools. B. burgdorferi isolates have been investigated with genotyping (DNA hybridization, PCR and 16S rRNA analysis) as well as serotyping by various authors. Comparison of the different methods has shown good agreement when the same strains have been investigated. No correlation could be found between different phenotypic and genotypic groups with respect to the ability to cause arthritis in SCID mice. A serotyping system based on immunological differences in OspA detected by a panel of monoclonal antibodies has been proposed. Serotyping a large number of B. burgdorferi isolates has shown a striking predominance of the OspA serotype 2 among European isolates from human skin, in contrast to isolates from ticks or CSF.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS).

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