Biology of Borrelia garinii Spirochetes
Abstract: Lyme borreliosis is a tick-transmitted infectious disease. The causative agents are spiral-shaped bacteria and the most common sign of infection is a skin rash at the site of the tick bite. If not treated with antibiotics, the bacteria can disseminate and cause a variety of different manifestations including arthritis, carditis or neurological problems. The disease is a zoonosis and the bacteria are maintained in nature by different vertebrate reservoir host animals. In Europe, three different Borrelia genospecies cause Lyme borreliosis: B. burgdorferi, B. afzelii and B. garinii. The latter depends in part on birds as its reservoir host. B. garinii bacteria have been found in a marine enzootic infection cycle worldwide and also among terrestrial birds. This thesis suggests that passerine birds and seabirds constitute an important reservoir for B. garinii bacteria also with clinical importance. We have found bacteria very similar to Lyme borreliosis causing isolates in ticks infesting migrating passerine birds. The birds not only transport infected ticks, but are competent reservoir hosts, as measured by their ability to infect naïve ticks. Their role as a reservoir host is dependent on their foraging behavior, where ground-dwelling birds are of greater importance than other species. When comparing B. garinii isolates from Europe, the Arctic and North Pacific, and including isolates from seabirds, passerine birds, Ixodes ricinus ticks and Lyme borreliosis patients, we found that phylogenetic grouping was not necessarily dependent on geographical or biological origin. B. garinii from seabirds were very heterogeneous and found in all different groups. Therefore, the marine and the terrestrial infection cycles are likely to overlap. This was supported by the fact that B. garinii isolated from seabirds can establish a long-term infection in mice. Bacteria from the genospecies B. garinii are overrepresented among neuroborreliosis patients. Interestingly, many clinical B. garinii isolates are sensitive to human serum and have shown weak binding to the complement inhibitor protein factor H. By transforming a serum-sensitive B. garinii isolate with a shuttle vector containing the gene for the factor H binding protein OspE from complement-resistant B. burgdorferi, serum resistance could be increased. In addition, neurovirulent B. garinii strains recently isolated from neuroborreliosis patients were shown to express a factor H binding protein, not found in bacteria that had been kept in culture for a long time. This protein may contribute to the virulence of neuroborreliosis-causing B. garinii strains. When testing B. garinii isolates from Lyme borreliosis patients and seabirds for resistance to human serum, all members of the latter group were sensitive to even low levels of serum. This suggests that seabird isolates are not capable of infecting humans. In agreement with this, B. garinii isolated from seabirds do not appear to bind human factor H.
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