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PLoS Pathog. 2009 Dec;5(12):e1000679. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1000679. Epub 2009 Dec 4.

Central role of the Holliday junction helicase RuvAB in vlsE recombination and infectivity of Borrelia burgdorferi.

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Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Medical School, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Texas, United States of America.


Antigenic variation plays a vital role in the pathogenesis of many infectious bacteria and protozoa including Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. VlsE, a 35 kDa surface-exposed lipoprotein, undergoes antigenic variation during B. burgdorferi infection of mammalian hosts, and is believed to be a critical mechanism by which the spirochetes evade immune clearance. Random, segmental recombination between the expressed vlsE gene and adjacent vls silent cassettes generates a large number of different VlsE variants within the infected host. Although the occurrence and importance of vlsE sequence variation is well established, little is known about the biological mechanism of vlsE recombination. To identify factors important in antigenic variation and vlsE recombination, we screened transposon mutants of genes known to be involved in DNA recombination and repair for their effects on infectivity and vlsE recombination. Several mutants, including those in BB0023 (ruvA), BB0022 (ruvB), BB0797 (mutS), and BB0098 (mutS-II), showed reduced infectivity in immunocompetent C3H/HeN mice. Mutants in ruvA and ruvB exhibited greatly reduced rates of vlsE recombination in C3H/HeN mice, as determined by restriction fragment polymorphism (RFLP) screening and DNA sequence analysis. In severe combined immunodeficiency (C3H/scid) mice, the ruvA mutant retained full infectivity; however, all recovered clones retained the 'parental' vlsE sequence, consistent with low rates of vlsE recombination. These results suggest that the reduced infectivity of ruvA and ruvB mutants is the result of ineffective vlsE recombination and underscores the important role that vlsE recombination plays in immune evasion. Based on functional studies in other organisms, the RuvAB complex of B. burgdorferi may promote branch migration of Holliday junctions during vlsE recombination. Our findings are consistent with those in the accompanying article by Dresser et al., and together these studies provide the first examples of trans-acting factors involved in vlsE recombination.

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