The genome of Borrelia recurrentis, the agent of deadly louse-borne relapsing fever, is a degraded subset of tick-borne Borrelia duttonii.
In an effort to understand how a tick-borne pathogen adapts to the body louse, we sequenced and compared the genomes of the recurrent fever agents Borrelia recurrentis and B. duttonii. The 1,242,163-1,574,910-bp fragmented genomes of B. recurrentis and B. duttonii contain a unique 23-kb linear plasmid. This linear plasmid exhibits a large polyT track within the promoter region of an intact variable large protein gene and a telomere resolvase that is unique to Borrelia. The genome content is characterized by several repeat families, including antigenic lipoproteins. B. recurrentis exhibited a 20.4% genome size reduction and appeared to be a strain of B. duttonii, with a decaying genome, possibly due to the accumulation of genomic errors induced by the loss of recA and mutS. Accompanying this were increases in the number of impaired genes and a reduction in coding capacity, including surface-exposed lipoproteins and putative virulence factors. Analysis of the reconstructed ancestral sequence compared to B. duttonii and B. recurrentis was consistent with the accelerated evolution observed in B. recurrentis. Vector specialization of louse-borne pathogens responsible for major epidemics was associated with rapid genome reduction. The correlation between gene loss and increased virulence of B. recurrentis parallels that of Rickettsia prowazekii, with both species being genomic subsets of less-virulent strains.