During persistent infection of scid mice with Borrelia turicatae, an agent of relapsing fever and neuroborreliosis, there was variation in the surface proteins the bacteria expressed and in disease manifestations over time. Two serotypes, A and B, were isolated from the mice, cloned by limiting dilution, and further characterized. The only discernible difference between the two variants was in the size of the major surface protein they expressed: serotype A had a variable major protein (Vmp) of 23,000, and serotype B had a Vmp of 20,000. When other scid mice were inoculated with clonal populations of A and B, the infections were similar with respect to onset and degree of spirochetemia, involvement of the eye and heart, and occurrence of a peripheral vestibular disorder. However, there were differences between the serotypes in other respects: (a) serotype B but not A caused reddened and significantly enlarged joints, markedly impaired performance on a walking bar, and severe arthritis by histologic examination; (b) serotype A but not B invaded the central nervous system during early infection; and (c) serotype A penetrated monolayers of human umbilical vein endothelial cells more readily than did serotype B. The combination of arthritis, myocarditis, and neurologic disease resembled human Lyme borreliosis. The findings indicate that differences in disease expression are determined by variable surface proteins of the bacterium and that scid mouse infections with B. turicatae provide a model for the study of the pathogenesis of Lyme borreliosis and other persistent spirochetal diseases.

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