Antigenic variation in the Lyme spirochete: detailed functional assessment of recombinational switching at vlsE in the JD1 strain of Borrelia burgdorferi.
Borrelia burgdorferi is a causative agent of Lyme disease and establishes long-term infection in mammalian hosts. Persistence is promoted by the VlsE antigenic variation system, which generates combinatorial diversity of VlsE through unidirectional, segmental gene conversion from an array of silent cassettes. Here we explore the variants generated by the vls system of strain JD1, which has divergent sequence and structural elements from the type strain B31, the only B. burgdorferi strain in which recombinational switching at vlsE has been studied in detail. We first completed the sequencing of the vls region in JD1, uncovering a previously unreported 114 bp inverted repeat sequence upstream of vlsE. A five-week infection of WT and SCID mice was used for PacBio long read sequencing along with our recently developed VAST pipeline to analyze recombinational switching at vlsE from 40,000 sequences comprising 226,000 inferred recombination events. We show that antigenic variation in B31 and JD1 is highly similar, despite the lack of 17 bp direct repeats in JD1, a somewhat different arrangement of the silent cassettes, divergent inverted repeat sequences and general divergence in the vls sequences. We also present data that strongly suggest that dimerization is required for in vivo functionality of VlsE. © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.