Date of this Version
Two unique isolates of Borrelia burgdorferi, differing in plasmid content and outer surface protein C expression, were cultured on sequential captures of a single free-living Peromyscus leucopus mouse and were examined for differences in transmissibility. Both isolates were transmissible from inoculated C.B-17 mice to larval Ixodes scapularis ticks and, subsequently, from infected nymphal ticks to C3H/HeJ mice. Plasmid and protein analyses suggested that the original isolates were a mixed population of B. burgdorferi, and cloning by limiting dilution resulted in the identification of two clonal groups. In addition to being heterogeneous in plasmid and genomic macrorestriction analyses, the clones varied with respect to the electrophoretic mobilities and antigenicity of their OspC proteins, as shown by their reactivity to a panel of monoclonal antibodies. Plasmid analysis of sequential isolates from C3H mice experimentally infected with the primary isolate or various mixtures of its subclones showed an apparently random fluctuation in clonal dominance in the majority of mice. Surprisingly, mice infected with each subclone were permissive to superinfection with the heterologous subclone, despite the presence of anti-B. burgdorferi antibodies at the time of the secondary challenge. These results show conclusively that mice captured at Lyme disease enzootic sites may be infected by mixed populations of genetically and antigenically distinct B. burgdorferi clones and that these infections can be acquired by coinfection or by sequential infection. The lack of cross-immunization between clones existing within a naturally occurring population may play a role in the maintenance of the genetic heterogeneity of B. burgdorferi in nature.