Comparative genome analysis: selection pressure on the Borrelia vls cassettes is essential for infectivity.
BACKGROUND: At least three species of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato (Bbsl) cause tick-borne Lyme disease. Previous work including the genome analysis of B. burgdorferi B31 and B. garinii PBi suggested a highly variable plasmid part. The frequent occurrence of duplicated sequence stretches, the observed plasmid redundancy, as well as the mainly unknown function and variability of plasmid encoded genes rendered the relationships between plasmids within and between species largely unresolvable. RESULTS: To gain further insight into Borreliae genome properties we completed the plasmid sequences of B. garinii PBi, added the genome of a further species, B. afzelii PKo, to our analysis, and compared for both species the genomes of pathogenic and apathogenic strains. The core of all Bbsl genomes consists of the chromosome and two plasmids collinear between all species. We also found additional groups of plasmids, which share large parts of their sequences. This makes it very likely that these plasmids are relatively stable and share common ancestors before the diversification of Borrelia species. The analysis of the differences between B. garinii PBi and B. afzelii PKo genomes of low and high passages revealed that the loss of infectivity is accompanied in both species by a loss of similar genetic material. Whereas B. garinii PBi suffered only from the break-off of a plasmid end, B. afzelii PKo lost more material, probably an entire plasmid. In both cases the vls gene locus encoding for variable surface proteins is affected. CONCLUSION: The complete genome sequences of a B. garinii and a B. afzelii strain facilitate further comparative studies within the genus Borrellia. Our study shows that loss of infectivity can be traced back to only one single event in B. garinii PBi: the loss of the vls cassettes possibly due to error prone gene conversion. Similar albeit extended losses in B. afzelii PKo support the hypothesis that infectivity of Borrelia species depends heavily on the evasion from the host response.