Antigenic variation with a twist – the Borrelia story


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A common mechanism of immune evasion in pathogenic bacteria and protozoa is antigenic variation, in which genetic or epigenetic changes result in rapid, sequential shifts in a surface-exposed antigen. In this issue of Molecular Microbiology, Dai et al. provide the most complete description to date of the vlp/vsp antigenic variation system of the relapsing fever spirochaete, Borrelia hermsii. This elaborate, plasmid-encoded system involves an expression site that can acquire either variable large protein (vlp) or variable small protein (vsp) surface lipoprotein genes from 59 different archival copies. The archival vlp and vsp genes are arranged in clusters on at least five different plasmids. Gene conversion occurs through recombination events at upstream homology sequences (UHS) found in each gene copy, and at downstream homology sequences (DHS) found periodically among the vlp/vsp archival genes. Previous studies have shown that antigenic variation in relapsing fever Borrelia not only permits the evasion of host antibody responses, but can also result in changes in neurotropism and other pathogenic properties. The vlsE antigenic variation locus of Lyme disease spirochaetes, although similar in sequence to the relapsing fever vlp genes, has evolved a completely different antigenic variation mechanism involving segmental recombination from a contiguous array of vls silent cassettes. These two systems thus appear to represent divergence from a common precursor followed by functional convergence to create two distinct antigenic variation processes.