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How Borrelia’s Unusual Peptidoglycan Could Alter How We Treat & Target Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. The infection is notoriously difficult to treat. The only option is currently antibiotics, and in roughly 20% of cases, people who have gone through treatment still go on to develop chronic Lyme – a persistent form of the disease that can continue to wreak havoc on the body long after the initial infection has subsided.

Scientific researchers have spent years studying the structure, function, and illness caused by Lyme bacteria in an effort to develop a better way to rid a person of the infection. While a lot of that research has been helpful, we haven’t yet devised a new treatment or cure for Lyme. However, new research surrounding borrelia’s unusual peptidoglycan may change everything in regard to Lyme disease and how it’s treated.

What is peptidoglycan?

Bacteria have a unique cell structure that helps them survive. Borrelia burgdorferi are classified as a spirochete bacterium because of their helical structure. The bacteria also contain outer and inner membranes and a flexible cell wall. In that cell wall is a substance known as peptidoglycan.

Peptidoglycan is a type of polymer comprised of amino acids and sugars. It forms a layer that is similar to mesh or a net surrounding the plasma membrane of the bacteria cell. It is designed to help the cell keep its shape and protect it from bursting from the absorption of liquid. Essentially, it is a layer of protection that helps the bacteria survive in its environment.

tick on finger
Image by Erik Karits on Unsplash: New research surrounding the borrelia bacteria could help pave the way for new tick-driven Lyme disease treatments.

What is unique about borrelia burgdorferi?

There are several unique aspects of the borrelia bacteria that make it stand out from the crowd. One such aspect is the fact that it is pleomorphic, which means the size and shape of the cell can change with its environment so that it can maintain its integrity. While the borrelia bacteria isn’t the only type of bacteria that possesses this unique ability, it does explain how it manages to survive long enough to spread as quickly as it does.

In terms of its peptidoglycan, new research has discovered an “unprecedented” change in the bacteria’s specific peptidoglycan that is unlike anything seen in any other type of organism. That change is a type of sugar modification. The bacteria manage to absorb unique carbohydrates known as chitins from ticks, and this absorption of the sugars gives the bacteria even more spreading power by eliciting a breakdown that helps create a molecule needed to improve peptidoglycan structure for optimal movement. 

The way the borrelia bacteria moves is already helpful when it comes to spreading. The organism spirals through muscle tissue and cartilage as a way to infiltrate deeper into the host’s body. The change in sugar modification allows the bacteria’s flagellum, which essentially acts as a propeller, to withstand pressure or torque in a way that gives it more movement flexibility.

Another recent finding surrounding the peptidoglycan of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease is the way that it sheds its protective mesh-like layer once it manages to get into its host. This is unlike most other bacteria, which tend to keep theirs even when they infiltrate a host.

black legged tick
Image by Erik Karits on Unsplash: How does the borrelia bacteria manages to survive so well?

Peptidoglycan and borrelia burgdorferi research

Other research done on the peptidoglycan in relation to Lyme disease has found that it is this protective layer that sticks around in the host’s body, causing inflammation and pain. There is also an associated protein that helps drive inflammation specifically in people who develop Lyme arthritis. The protein itself provokes the immune system in a way that elicits a response, and thus continued inflammation in the body. 

The discovery of the unique properties of peptidoglycan in borrelia bacteria may help to pave the way not only to new treatment options, but also to new ways of diagnosing Lyme disease because of the body’s inability to process the peptidoglycan in the same way it does with other types of bacteria.

What is the future of Lyme disease treatment? 

This unique finding has given medical researchers an upper hand when it comes to evaluating the spread of Lyme disease via infected ticks. They have already seen how the modification along with the improved flexibility works within ticks, but since there is little chitin found within the bodies of humans, there is still the question of how the bacteria can use this specific evolutionary process when it has made its way into a human host.

The next step in finding a new and improved treatment option for Lyme disease would be to figure how the bacteria manages to maintain or create this modification while in a human host.  Because of the drastic increase in ticks as well as Lyme disease and other tick-borne disease cases in recent years, this finding couldn’t have come at a better time.  

Featured image by Terry Vlisidis on Unsplash

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