Arp is an immunogenic protein of the Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi and contributes to joint inflammation during infection. Despite Arp eliciting a strong humoral response, antibodies fail to clear the infection. Given previous evidence of immune avoidance mediated by the antigenically variable lipoprotein of B. burgdorferi, VlsE, we use passive immunization assays to examine whether VlsE protects the pathogen from anti-Arp antibodies. The results show that spirochetes are only able to successfully infect passively immunized mice when VlsE is expressed. Subsequent immunofluorescence assays reveal that VlsE prevents binding of Arp-specific antibodies, thereby providing an explanation for the failure of Arp antisera to clear the infection. The results also show that the shielding effect of VlsE is not universal for all B. burgdorferi cell-surface antigens. The findings reported here represent a direct demonstration of VlsE-mediated protection of a specific B. burgdorferi surface antigen through a possible epitope-shielding mechanism.
Lone and Bankhead report that the antigenically variable VlsE protein of the Lyme disease agent Borrelia burgdorferi can prevent antibody binding to a surface antigen of the pathogen. They show that protection is likely via an epitope-shielding mechanism, thus expanding the current role of VlsE in immune evasion.