Lyme disease spirochetes, Borrelia burgdorferi, interact with cultured tick cells in ways similar to those reported to occur in the vector Ixodes dammini Spielman, Clifford, Piesman & Corwin. Spirochete adhesion and penetration were examined using a cell line from embryos of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus Neumann that morphologically resembles tick gut cells, RAE25. Cocultivation of B. burgdorferi with these cells permitted prolonged maintenance of infectivity for hamsters. Borrelial adherence to RAE25 cells was time- and density-dependent and increased by 10-15% per h during the first 5.5 h of cocultivation when we used a concentration of 4 x 10(7) spirochetes/ml. After 6 h, > 90% of the cells bound an average of 3-5 spirochetes per cell. Low passage, hamster-infective strains of B. burgdorferi (JMNT and CD16) showed a 2-3-fold higher rate of adhesion to RAE25 cells than the highly passaged, noninfectious strain B31. Inactivation of CD16 or JMNT by heat, starvation, or treatment with puromycin reduced adherence by 40-60%, whereas pretreatment with monoclonal antibodies to the outer surface proteins had no effect. Spirochetes adhered to young I. dammini cell lines to a similar degree as they did to RAE25, whereas lines from the ticks Dermacentor variabilis (Say) (RML15) and Boophilus microplus (Canestrini) (BME26) bound 30-60% fewer spirochetes. Electron microscopy revealed epicellular borreliae associated with coated pits and vesicles before endocytosis, and intracellular spirochetes were surrounded by a host cell-derived membrane.