Cross-immunity and community structure of a multiple-strain pathogen in the tick vector
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Applied and Environmental Microbiology
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Many vector-borne pathogens consist of multiple strains that circulate in both the vertebrate host and the arthropod vector. Characterization of the community of pathogen strains in the arthropod vector is therefore important for understanding the epidemiology of mixed vector-borne infections. Borrelia afzelii and B. garinii are two species of tick-borne bacteria that cause Lyme disease in humans. These two sympatric pathogens use the same tick, Ixodes ricinus, but are adapted to different classes of vertebrate hosts. Both Borrelia species consist of multiple strains that are classified using the highly polymorphic ospC gene. Vertebrate cross-immunity against the OspC antigen is predicted to structure the community of multiple-strain Borrelia pathogens. Borrelia isolates were cultured from field-collected I. ricinus ticks over a period spanning 11 years. The Borrelia species of each isolate was identified using a reverse line blot (RLB) assay. Deep sequencing was used to characterize the ospC communities of 190 B. afzelii isolates and 193 B. garinii isolates. Infections with multiple ospC strains were common in ticks, but vertebrate cross-immunity did not influence the strain structure in the tick vector. The pattern of genetic variation at the ospC locus suggested that vertebrate cross-immunity exerts strong selection against intermediately divergent ospC alleles. Deep sequencing found that more than 50% of our isolates contained exotic ospC alleles derived from other Borrelia species. Two alternative explanations for these exotic ospC alleles are cryptic coinfections that were not detected by the RLB assay or horizontal transfer of the ospC gene between Borrelia species.
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