In the Lyme disease spirochetes, both the ospE and vlse gene families have been demonstrated to undergo sequence variation during infection. To further investigate the mechanisms associated with the generation of vls variation, single-nucleotide polymorphism and subsequent DNA sequence analyses were performed on the vlsE gene and its paralog, BBJ51, a related gene with a frameshift mutation. These analyses focused on a series of postinfection clonal populations obtained from mice infected with Borrelia burgdorferi B31MIpc or its clonal derivative, B31MIc53. vlsE, but not BBJ51, was found to undergo sequence changes during infection. Consistent with that reported previously (J.-R. Zhang et al., Cell 89:275-285, 1997) many of the sequence changes appear to have arisen through gene conversion events and to be localized to the variable regions of vlsE. However, analysis of the vlsE nucleotide sequences revealed that some sequence changes were the result of point mutations, as these changes did not have potential contributing sources in the vls cassettes. To determine if sequence changes accumulate in vlsE over long-term infection, the vlsE genes of clonal populations recovered after 7 months of infection in mice were analyzed. While new sequence changes developed, a significant number of these changes resulted in the restoration of the vlsE sequence of the original infecting clone. In addition, we noted that some positions within the variable regions (VR) are stable even though the cassettes possess residues that could contribute to sequence variation through gene conversion. These analyses suggest that the total number of amino acid sequence changes that can be maintained by VlsE levels off during infection. In summary, in this report we demonstrate that the development of point mutations serves as a second mechanism by which vlsE sequence variation can be generated and that the capacity for vlsE variation, while still significant, is less than previously postulated.
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