Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Microbiology & Immunology

First Advisor

Richard Marconi


Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in North America, with approximately 35,000 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control in 2008. The genome of its causative agent, Borrelia burgdorferi, encodes for a set of genes involved in the metabolism and regulatory activities of the second messenger nucleotide, cyclic-di-GMP (c-di-GMP). Rrp1 is a response regulatory-diguanylate cyclase, and its regulatory capability is likely mediated via production of c-di-GMP, as it lacks a DNA-binding domain. One known class of c-di-GMP effector/binding proteins are those that harbor a PIlZ domain. The genome of B. burgdorferi strain 5A4 encodes for one chromosomally-carried PilZ domain, which we have designated PlzA. Additionally, certain B. burgdorferi strains encode for a second PilZ domain-containing protein (PlzB) which is plasmid-carried. Both PlzA and PlzB were found to bind specifically to c-di-GMP, and c-di-GMP binding by PlzA was found to be dependant upon arginine residues in the c-di-GMP binding region. Additionally, expression of PlzA was found to be upregulated by tick feeding and was constitutive in the mammalian host. We next constructed two deletion/allelic exchange mutants – one with the targeted deletion of PlzA, and on ethat replaced PlzA with PlzB in a strain lacking the plzB gene. Our studies demonstrated that ΔplzA was deficient in motility and was also non-infectious in the mouse model of B. burgdorferi infection. Additionally, this strain remained viable in larval Ixodes ticks. Also, B31-plzB KI was deficient in motility, as well as infectivity, demonstrating that PlzB is unable to complement for functions fo PlzA in vitro and in vivo and that it may play other roles in the biology of B. burgdorferi strains carrying the plzB gene. These studies represent the first identification of a c-di-GMP binding protein in any spirochete, but also represent the first demonstration of the importance of PilZ domain proteins in a spirochetal system. We additionally examined the effects of c-di-GMP synthesis and breakdown in the related bacterium, B. hermsii, a causative agent of tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF). Deletion mutants in Rrp1 (B. hermsii’s sole diguanylate cyclase) and PdeA (B. hermsii’s only EAL domain-containing phosphodiesterase) were created. These strains were analyzed in order to determine: 1) the effect(s) of the losse of Rrp1/PdeA on intracellular spirochete c-di-GMP levels, and 2) the effects of Rrp1/PdeA on the establishment of murine infection and on gross motility/chemotaxis. It was demonstrated that c-di-GMP accumulates intracellularly in the cells lacking PdeA. Additionally, spirochetes were shown to chemotax towards N-acetyl-glucosamine (NAG) and they did not form soft agar swarms. In contrast, cells lacking Rrp1 did not accumulate detectable levels of c-di-GMP, demonstrated a reduced ability to chemotax towards NAG, and swarmed on soft agar in a fashion indistinguishable from wild type. Despite these differences in phenotype, both mutant strains display an attenuated murine infectivity. These results indicate that c-di-GMP is indeed important in the TBRF spirochete, B. hermsii and this vital second messenger plays key roles in virulence, motility, and chemotaxis. These studies also pave the way for future investigation of B. hermsii through use of targeted genetic manipulation.


© The Author

Is Part Of

VCU University Archives

Is Part Of

VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission


Available for download on Wednesday, September 22, 2021