Within-host microbial communities and interactions among microbes are increasingly recognized as important factors influencing host health and pathogen transmission. The microbial community associated with a host is indeed influenced by a complex network of direct and indirect interactions between the host and the lineages of microbes it harbors, but the mechanisms are rarely established. We investigated the within-host interactions among strains of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, using experimental infections in mice. We used a fully crossed-design with three distinct strains, each group of hosts receiving two sequential inoculations. We used data from these experimental infections to assess the effect of coinfection on bacterial dissemination and fitness (by measuring the transmission of bacteria to xenodiagnostic ticks) as well as the effect of coinfection on host immune response compared to single infection.
The infection and transmission data strongly indicate a competitive interaction among B. burgdorferi strains within a host in which the order of appearance of the strain is the main determinant of the competitive outcome. This pattern is well described by the classic priority effect in the ecological literature. In all cases, the primary strain a mouse was infected with had an absolute fitness advantage primarily since it was transmitted an order of magnitude more than the secondary strain. The mechanism of exclusion of the secondary strain is an inhibition of the colonization of mouse tissues, even though 29% of mice showed some evidence of infection by secondary strain. Contrary to expectation, the strong and specific adaptive immune response evoked against the primary strain was not followed by production of immunoglobulins after the inoculation of the secondary strain, neither against strain-specific antigen nor against antigens common to all strains. Hence, the data do not support a major role of the immune response in the observed priority effect.
The strong inhibitory priority effect is a dominant mechanism underlying competition for transmission between coinfecting B. burgdorferi strains, most likely through resource exploitation. The observed priority effect could shape bacterial diversity in nature, with consequences in epidemiology and evolution of the disease.