While the roles of rpoS Bb and RpoS-dependent genes have been studied extensively within the mammal, the contribution of the RpoS regulon to the tick-phase of the Borrelia burgdorferi enzootic cycle has not been examined. Herein, we demonstrate that RpoS-dependent gene expression is prerequisite for the transmission of spirochetes by feeding nymphs. RpoS-deficient organisms are confined to the midgut lumen where they transform into an unusual morphotype (round bodies) during the later stages of the blood meal. We show that round body formation is rapidly reversible, and in vitro appears to be attributable, in part, to reduced levels of Coenzyme A disulfide reductase, which among other functions, provides NAD + for glycolysis. Our data suggest that spirochetes default to an RpoS-independent program for round body formation upon sensing that the energetics for transmission are unfavorable.
Lyme disease, caused by the spirochetal pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi, is the most prevalent arthropod-borne infection in the United States. In order to maintain itself in nature, B. burgdorferi must cycle between its arthropod vector, Ixodes ticks, and a mammalian reservoir, usually a small rodent. Previous studies have demonstrated that the alternative sigma factor RpoS is essential for B. burgdorferi to infect a mammalian host, whereas a role within the tick has never been examined. In this study, we determined that one or more RpoS-dependent genes are required for B. burgdorferi to disseminate through the tick. Using a combination of microscopy techniques, we show that RpoS-deficient organisms are confined to the lumen of the tick midgut during nymphal feeding where they form round bodies, while wild-type spirochetes remain elongated and traverse the midgut to enter the hemolymph and salivary glands en route to the mammalian host.