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Summary

Borrelia burgdorferi outer surface protein C (ospC) is required for the establishment of infection in mammals. However, its precise function remains controversial. The biologically active form of OspC appears to be a homodimer. Alpha helix 1 and 1′ of the apposing monomers form a solvent-accessible pocket at the dimeric interface that presents a putative ligand-binding domain (LBD1). Here we employ site-directed and allelic-exchange mutagenesis to test the hypothesis that LBD1 is a determinant of OspC function in the mammalian environment. Substitution of residues K60, E61 and E63 which line LBD1 resulted in the loss of infectivity or influenced dissemination. Analyses of the corresponding recombinant proteins demonstrated that the loss of function was not due to structural perturbation, impaired dimer formation or the loss of plasminogen binding. This study is the first to assess the involvement of individual residues and domains of OspC in its in vivo function. The data support the hypothesis that OspC interacts with a mammalian derived ligand that is critical for survival during early infection. These results shed new light on the structure–functions relationships of OspC and challenge existing hypotheses regarding OspC function in mammals.