The spirochete Borrelia hermsii avoids the immune response of its mammalian host through multiphasic antigenic variation. Serotype specificity is determined by variable antigens, Vmp proteins, in the outer membrane. Through nonreciprocal recombination between linear plasmids, a formerly silent vmp gene replaces another vmp gene downstream from a common expression site. To further characterize this activating site, we determined the nucleotide sequence of 6.9 kb of the common upstream expression region of strain HS1 of B. hermsii. Preceding the vmp gene promoter and a poly(dT.dA) run were three imperfectly repeated segments of 2 kb. Each of the 2-kb segments contained 1-kb elements with inverted repeats of approximately 0.2 kb each at their termini. The potential of the 1-kb elements to form stem-and-loop structures was demonstrated by heteroduplex analysis. There was no evidence of the presence of the elements elsewhere in the genome of B. hermsii. One or more of these elements may confer the unidirectionality that characterizes vmp gene switches
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