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Summary

To initiate infection, a microbial pathogen must be able to evade innate immunity. Here we show that the Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi depends on its surface lipoproteins for protection against innate defences. The deficiency for OspC, an abundantly expressed surface lipoprotein during early infection, led to quick clearance of B. burgdorferi after inoculation into the skin of SCID mice. Increasing expression of any of the four randomly chosen surface lipoproteins, OspA, OspE, VlsE or DbpA, fully protected the ospC mutant from elimination from the skin tissue of SCID mice; moreover, increased OspA, OspE or VlsE expression allowed the mutant to cause disseminated infection and restored the ability to effectively colonize both joint and skin tissues, albeit the dissemination process was much slower than that of the mutant restored with OspC expression. When the ospC mutant was modified to express OspA under control of the ospC regulatory elements, it registered only a slight increase in the 50% infectious dose than the control in SCID mice but a dramatic increase in immunocompetent mice. Taken together, the study demonstrated that the surface lipoproteins provide B. burgdorferi with an essential protective function against host innate elimination.