Immune evasion of Borrelia burgdorferi: insufficient killing of the pathogens by complement and antibody

Int J Med Microbiol. 2002 Jun;291 Suppl 33:141-6. doi: 10.1016/s1438-4221(02)80027-3.


The innate immune system and, in particular, the complement system play a key role in the elimination of micro-organisms after entrance in the human host. Like other pathogens, borreliae must develop strategies to inactivate host defence mechanisms. By investigating serum (NHS)-susceptibility of borreliae, we found that mainly B. afzelii isolates are serum-resistant, whereas the majority of B. burgdorferi s. s. isolates display an intermediate serum-sensitive phenotype. In contrast, B. garinii isolates are killed effectively by complement and therefore are classified as serum-sensitive. Up to now, we have identified two distinct proteins of 27.5 kDa and 20.7 kDa expressed on the outer surface of borreliae, which interact directly with FHL-1/reconectin and factor H, the two major regulators of the alternative complement pathway. These borrelial proteins are termed CRASPs (complement regulator-acquiring surface proteins). CRASPs are detectable only on serum-resistant borreliae and, accordingly, binding of FHL-1/reconectin and factor H only occur with serum-resistant borrelial isolates. We conclude from these results that the control of complement activation on the borrelial surface is due to the interaction of borrelial CRASPs with host complement regulatory proteins. Thus, CRASPs represent an important mechanism of immune evasion on the part of borrelial isolates belonging mostly to the genospecies B. afzelii. By analysing the humoral adaptive immune response of patients, we detected sera that killed NHS-resistant borreliae. Borreliacidal activity is observed most frequently with sera of patients at stage III of the disease. The killing of NHS-resistant isolates by these immune sera always requires the combination of antibodies and complement. Bactericidal activity, however, is not detected in all immune sera at the different disease stages, although specific anti-Borrelia antibodies are present according to serological test results. This observation suggests that not all borrelial antigens are able to induce a borreliacidal immune response. In an extensive analysis of 24 immune sera, we identified up to 12 borrelial antigens, including OspC, which possess the greatest potential for the induction of borreliacidal antibody. The borreliacidal potential of anti-OspC antibodies was tested directly on an OspC-expressing borrelial wild-type isolate and a corresponding variant lacking OspC. In these studies, only the wild-type isolate expressing OspC on its surface proved positive for the lytic complement complex, thereby indicating the great importance of this antigen for the control of the infection. Additional studies are required to identify further "protective" antigens among these 12 proteins, all of which are candidates for infection control according to our studies involving patient immune sera. These antigens may include the recently detected CRASPs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Bacterial / immunology*
  • Bacterial Proteins / immunology
  • Blood Proteins / immunology
  • Borrelia burgdorferi / immunology
  • Borrelia burgdorferi / pathogenicity
  • Borrelia burgdorferi Group / immunology*
  • Borrelia burgdorferi Group / pathogenicity
  • Complement Activation
  • Complement C3b Inactivator Proteins
  • Complement Factor H / immunology
  • Complement System Proteins / immunology*
  • Epitopes / immunology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Lyme Disease / immunology*
  • Lyme Disease / microbiology
  • Membrane Proteins / immunology


  • Antibodies, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Blood Proteins
  • CFH protein, human
  • CFHR1 protein, human
  • Complement C3b Inactivator Proteins
  • Epitopes
  • Membrane Proteins
  • complement regulator-acquiring surface proteins, Borrelia burgdorferi
  • Complement Factor H
  • Complement System Proteins