By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence
Rockville, MD (12/10/97)- The complete genome of the Lyme disease
pathogen, Borrelia burgdorferi, has now been sequenced. This should
provide new clues for answering the countless remaining questions about
Lyme disease pathogenesis, prevention, and treatment.
disease is a debilitating bacterial infection transmitted by bite of the
Ixodes scapularis tick. The disease takes its name from Lyme, Connecticut,
where the disease was described in 1975. The infectious eagent was subseuquently
identified as B. burgdorferi. The disease primarily affects people
living in the northeastern and upper north-central United States, and along
the northern Pacific Coast.
All four stages of Ixodes
scapularis, the black-legged or deer tick with dime for size comparison.
B. burgdorferi was sequenced by scientists at the same research
group, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), where the genomes of
the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae and the ulcer-causing Heliocobacter
pylori were sequenced. The researchers used software programs
that allowed rapid and accurate sequencing of large segments of DNA. The
so-called 'shot-gun sequencing strategy' begins with the preparation of
a single random DNA fragment library by first mechanically breaking the
organism apart. The resulting fragments are then sequenced and assembled
to produce the complete genome with the help of software programs.
The genome of Borrelia burgdorferi contains a linear chromosome of 910,725
bp and 19 linear and circular plasmids with a combined size of more than
560,000 bp. The chromosome contains 853 genes encoding a basic set
of proteins for DNA replication, transcription, translation, solute transport,
and energy metabolism, but no genes for cellular biosynthetic reactions.
Greater than 85% of the plasmid genes have no known biological function;
thirty-nine percent of plasmid genes are paralogs that comprise 47 gene
The biological significance of the multiple plasmid-encoded genes is
not clear, although they may play a role in antigenic variation or immune
evasion. Long-term passage of B. burgdorferi in vitro results in
a loss of some circular and linear plasmids, changes in expressed protein
profiles and a loss in the ability of the organism to infect laboratory
animals, suggesting that the plasmids encode key genes involved in virulence.
With the exception of a small number of putative virulence genes, this
organism contains few recognizable genes involved in virulence or host-parasite
interactions. This suggests that B. burgdorferi differs from better-studied
eubacteria in this respect. Determining the biological role of the multi-copy
plasmid-encoded genes will be of great interest, in light of previous work
implicating plasmid genes in infectivity and virulence. In addition,
the finding of more than 100 lipoproteins in B. burgdorferi may result
in identification of novel targets for vaccine development, the researchers
The B. burgdorferi organism can persist in humans and animals
for months or years following initial infection, despite a robust immune
response. Treatment with antibiotics immediately after transmission can
halt the infection, but left untreated the disease can progress to a crippling
Researchers are anxious to develop a vaccine for Lyme disease.
A canine vaccine consisting of whole inactivated organisms has been available
since the early 1990s, however, the success of this vaccine in protecting
dogs against B. burgdorferi infection has been mixed. Human clinical
trials of a vaccine derived from recombinant outer surface proteins of
B. burgdorferi are also underway.
One of the difficulties in developing a meaningful strategy for immunization
is the fact that it is not at all clear what roles humoral and cell-mediated
immunity play in the pathogenesis of and protection against acute and chronic
Lyme disease. The researchers hope the genomic information will contribute
to the search for vaccines and treatments for Lyme disease. One possible
first step would be the development of a culture method for the bacterium.
On a more general level, the sequencing of B. burgdorferi raises
questions about the structure of bacterial chromosomes. In particular,
researchers will be looking at differences and similarities between plasmids
and chromosomes within the genome. The research could also lead to better
understanding of bacterial evolution in general.