The ability of the Lyme disease spirochete to attach to host components may contribute to its ability to infect diverse tissues. We present evidence that the Lyme disease spirochete expresses a lectin activity that promotes agglutination of erythrocytes and bacterial attachment to glycosaminoglycans. Among a diverse collection of 21 strains of Lyme disease spirochete, hemagglutinating activity was easily detected in all but 3 strains, and these three strains were noninfectious. The ability to agglutinate erythrocytes was associated with the ability of the spirochete to bind to the sulfated polysaccharide dextran sulfate and to mammalian cells. Soluble dextran sulfate was a potent inhibitor of both hemagglutination and attachment to mammalian cells, while dextran had no effect on either activity, suggesting that dextran sulfate may inhibit attachment by mimicking host cell glycosaminoglycans. Consistent with this, the spirochete bound to immobilized heparin, and soluble heparin inhibited bacterial adhesion to mammalian cells. The bacterium did not bind efficiently to Vero cells treated with heparinase or heparitinase or to mutant CHO cell lines that are deficient in proteoglycan synthesis. Sulfation of glycosaminoglycans was critical for efficient bacterial recognition, as Vero cells treated with an inhibitor of sulfation, or a mutant CHO cell line that produces undersulfated heparan sulfate, did not mediate maximal spirochetal binding. Binding of the spirochete to extracellular matrix also appeared to be dependent upon this attachment pathway. These findings suggest that a glycosaminoglycan-binding activity which can be detected by hemagglutination contributes to the attachment of the Lyme disease spirochete to host cells and matrix
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