The Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, can be recovered long after initial infection, even from antibiotic-treated patients, indicating that it resists eradication by host defense mechanisms and antibiotics. Since B. burgdorferi first infects skin, the possible protective effect of skin fibroblasts from an antibiotic commonly used to treat Lyme disease, ceftriaxone, was examined. Human foreskin fibroblasts protected B. burgdorferi from the lethal action of a 2-day exposure to ceftriaxone at 1 microgram/mL, 10-20 x MBC. In the absence of fibroblasts, organisms did not survive. Spirochetes were not protected from ceftriaxone by glutaraldehyde-fixed fibroblasts or fibroblast lysate, suggesting that a living cell was required. The ability of the organism to survive in the presence of fibroblasts was not related to its infectivity. Fibroblasts protected B. burgdorferi for at least 14 days of exposure to ceftriaxone. Mouse keratinocytes, HEp-2 cells, and Vero cells but not Caco-2 cells showed the same protective effect. Thus, several eukaryotic cell types provide the Lyme disease spirochete with a protective environment contributing to its long-term survival.