A Borrelia burgdorferi mini-vls system that undergoes antigenic switching in mice: investigation of the role of plasmid topology and the long inverted repeat

Mol Microbiol. 2018 Sep;109(5):710-721. doi: 10.1111/mmi.14071. Epub 2018 Sep 9.


Borrelia burgdorferi evades the host immune system by switching the surface antigen. VlsE, in a process known as antigenic variation. The DNA mechanisms and genetic elements present on the vls locus that participate in the switching process remain to be elucidated. Manipulating the vls locus has been difficult due to its instability on Escherichia coli plasmids. In this study, we generated for the first time a mini-vls system composed of a single silent vlsE variable region (silent cassette 2) through the vlsE gene by performing some cloning steps directly in a highly transformable B. burgdorferi strain. Variants of the mini system were constructed with or without the long inverted repeat (IR) located upstream of vlsE and on both circular and linear plasmids to investigate the importance of the IR and plasmid topology on recombinational switching at vlsE. Amplicon sequencing using PacBio long read technology and analysis of the data with our recently reported pipeline and VAST software showed that the system undergoes switching in mice in both linear and circular versions and that the presence of the hairpin does not seem to be crucial in the linear version, however it is required when the topology is circular.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigenic Variation*
  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics*
  • Borrelia burgdorferi / genetics
  • Borrelia burgdorferi / immunology*
  • DNA Primers
  • Genetic Loci / genetics
  • Genetic Vectors
  • Genome, Bacterial / genetics
  • Inverted Repeat Sequences / genetics*
  • Lipoproteins / genetics*
  • Lyme Disease / blood
  • Lyme Disease / microbiology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, SCID
  • Plasmids / genetics*


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • DNA Primers
  • Lipoproteins
  • VlsE protein, Borrelia burgdorferi