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Longitudinal accumulation of in vivo and in vitro-grown Treponema pallidum subsp. pallidum TprK variants in the presence and absence of immune pressure

By Michelle J Lin, Austin Haynes, Amin Addetia, Nicole AP Lieberman, Quynh Phung, Hong Xie, Tien V Nguyen, Barbara J Molini, Sheila Lukehart, Lorenzo Giacani, Alex Greninger

Posted 27 Jun 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.06.26.450029

Immune evasion by Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum (T. pallidum) has been attributed to antigenic variation of its putative outer-membrane protein TprK. In TprK, amino acid diversity is confined to seven variable (V) regions, and generation of sequence diversity within the V regions occurs via a non-reciprocal segmental gene conversion mechanism where donor cassettes recombine into the tprK expression site. Although previous studies have shown the significant role of immune selection in driving accumulation of TprK variants, the contribution of baseline gene conversion activity to variant diversity is less clear. Here, combining longitudinal tprK deep sequencing of near clonal Chicago C from immunocompetent and immunosuppressed rabbits along with the newly developed in vitro cultivation system for T. pallidum, we directly characterized TprK alleles in the presence and absence of immune selection. Our data confirm significantly greater sequence diversity over time within the V6 region during syphilis infection in immunocompetent rabbits compared to immunosuppressed rabbits, consistent with previous studies on the role of TprK in evasion of the host immune response. Compared to strains grown in immunocompetent rabbits, strains passaged in vitro displayed low level changes in allele frequencies of TprK variable region sequences similar to that of strains passaged in immunosuppressed rabbits. Notably, we found significantly increased rates of V6 allele generation relative to other variable regions in in vitro cultivated T, pallidum strains, illustrating that the diversity within these hypervariable regions occurs in the complete absence of immune selection. Together, our results demonstrate antigenic variation in T. pallidum can be studied in vitro and occurs even in the complete absence of immune pressure, allowing the T. pallidum population to continuously evade the immune system of the infected host.

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