Borrelia burgdorferi strains (six isolates from North America and 28 isolates from Europe) were analyzed by physicochemical and immunological methods. By SDS-PAGE, all Borrelia burgdorferi strains tested had two major proteins with constant molecular weights of 60 and 41 kDa and one, two, or three variable low molecular weight proteins (OspA = 30-32 kDa, OspB = 34-36 kDa, pC = 21-22 kDa). All combinations--except OspB alone or OspB/pC--were observed. Borrelia burgdorferi strains were different from relapsing fever borreliae by strong reactivity with OspA- and/or pC-specific polyclonal antibodies, whereas relapsing fever borreliae were only weakly reactive. Among 25 Borrelia burgdorferi isolates, seven different serotypes of Borrelia burgdorferi were defined according to their reactivity in the Western blot with three monoclonal OspA-specific antibodies (H5332, H3TS, and LA5), four OspA- or OspB-specific polyclonal antibodies, and 12 polyclonal antibodies against whole borreliae. Antigenic differences between European CSF and skin isolates were observed, all skin isolates (n = 11) belonging to serotype 2 in contrast to only two out of seven CSF isolates. CSF isolates were antigenically heterogenous (serotypes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). Serotypes 6 and 7 were represented by two tick isolates, and the other European tick isolates are not yet fully characterized. Antigenic differences between European and North American strains may play a role in differences in the clinical picture of Lyme borreliosis.