C3H/HeJ mice were inoculated intraperitoneally with 10(7) uncloned Borrelia burgdorferi at 4 weeks of age and examined on days 30, 90, 180, and 360. Spirochetes were isolated from multiple tissues at all intervals. Joint and heart disease were present in all mice at 30 days and resolved after 90 days. At 180 and 360 days, some mice had mild recurrent joint and heart disease, and most had peripheral segmental periarteritis. The protein electrophoretic migration of 360-day isolates differed from the original inoculum. The experiment was repeated with C3H/HeN and BALB/cByJ mice inoculated intradermally with 10(4) cloned B. burgdorferi. Characterization of infection and disease at 180 and 360 days were similar to those of the first experiment, but spirochetal proteins of isolates from both intervals displayed no protein variation in electrophoretic mobilities. Spirochetes isolated at 360 days were fully pathogenic in naive mice. Sera from infected mice showed an initial immunoglobulin M response, followed by a sustained immunoglobulin G response, involving IgG1, IgG2a, IgG2b and IgG3, with expanding reactivity against multiple antigens over time. These results indicate that immunocompetent mice sustain persistent infections and develop early acute joint and heart lesions that resolve and then recur intermittently.