Understanding the Bacteria Behind Lyme Disease: A Closer Look at Borrelia burgdorferi

Northeastern University

Introduction: Exploring the Mysteries of Borrelia burgdorferi
While the majority of people avoid contact with the deer tick responsible for transmitting Lyme disease, researcher Constantin Takacs at Northeastern University is taking a different approach. He is dedicating his efforts to studying the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, the corkscrew-shaped organism responsible for spreading Lyme disease via tick bites. In his new lab, Takacs seeks to uncover the unique characteristics of this bacterium, with the hope of developing innovative treatment methods for those affected by Lyme disease.

A Different Kind of Spirochete
Borrelia burgdorferi is unlike other spirochetes, as it requires a vector or living organism to transmit infectious pathogens to animals and humans. In this case, the vector is the deer tick, an accommodating and hardy host. Takacs mentions that deer ticks can live for more than a year without eating, allowing the bacteria inside to survive and transmit Lyme disease when the tick finally gets a blood meal.

The genetic makeup of Borrelia burgdorferi is also more complex than that of other bacteria. Takacs explains, “Most bacteria have one circular piece of DNA, called a chromosome. Leptospira has two. Borrelia burgdorferi has about 20, and some of them are linear.”

Discovering the Bacteria’s Unique Qualities
In 2022, Takacs published a study using fluorescent microscopy to show that each of Borrelia burgdorferi’s genome segments makes 10 copies of itself. This indicates that the bacterium functions differently than other bacteria and is very good at staying alive in its natural environment.

The visualization of the bacterium’s genomic information also revealed that the copies were equally spaced in the cell, ensuring that both daughter cells receive copies of all the genome pieces during division. This allows the spirochete to be highly efficient in transmitting Lyme disease.

Leveraging Advanced Technology for Progress
Takacs believes that using techniques such as high-resolution fluorescence microscopy and CRISPR interference will help speed scientific advancements in understanding Borrelia burgdorferi. In 2021, he published a study that utilized CRISPR interference to target Borrelia gene functions, allowing researchers to study each gene’s role in a more accessible way.

Building a Dedicated Lyme Disease Research Lab
As the lab is being set up, Takacs is in the process of recruiting graduate and undergraduate students and postdocs. He has started growing the bacteria again and is excited about teaching others how to cultivate it, perform genetic modifications, and learn about its unique characteristics.

Conclusion: Hope for the Future
Takacs’ innovative research on Borrelia burgdorferi offers a promising outlook for the future of the Lyme disease community. By delving into the unique characteristics and functions of the bacterium, his work has the potential to enhance our understanding of Lyme disease and lead to the development of more effective treatments. As the dedicated Lyme disease research lab at Northeastern University continues to grow and thrive, it represents a beacon of hope for those affected by this debilitating illness.

Northeastern University. (2023, April 21). Bacteria that cause Lyme disease, under the microscope in a new lab.