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New Research: Lyme Disease Bacteria Survives by Forming Biofilm

Release Date:
10/24/2012 5:00 PM

Sapi's Peer-Reviewed Paper in International Science Journal

Oct. 23, 2012

Eva Sapi, lab, features Eva Sapi

WEST HAVEN, CONN. – The bacteria responsible for Lyme disease is capable of forming a biofilm which might allow it to hide and resist harsh environmental conditions such as antibiotic treatments, according to a paper published today in an online science journal.

The paper, whose principal author is Eva Sapi, an associate professor of biology and environmental science at the University of New Haven who has conducted extensive research on Lyme disease, was published by PLOS-ONE, an international, peer-reviewed online publication.

Run by a non-profit corporation, PLOS ONE (The Public Library of Science ONE), publishes primary science research. The paper is available online at:

The paper notes that Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, is continuously rearranging its structure.  It can transform itself from motile spirochetes into cystic, granular or cell wall deficient forms even when it is in an unfavorable environment.

To do this, the Borrelia forms a biofilm – a slimy substance that often forms on surfaces that are in contact with water.  Biofilms consist of bacteria and other microorganisms.  In the case of Lyme disease, the biofilm allows the bacteria to “hide” until the environment is favorable again, the paper concludes.  The bacteria can then reappear, Sapi says.

“We have found substantial evidence that Borrelia burgdorferi is capable of forming biofilm,” Sapi says.  “Biofilm formation might play an important role in how well this bacterium survives inside a tick or a mammal including a human.  The research shows it survives in diverse environmental conditions by providing refuge to individual cells.”

Sapi says the formation of biofilm allows the Borrelia to hide and remain dormant for periods of time.

The research on this paper was done in vitro, that is, in a test tube.  The next step will be doing research on the bacteria in tick samples and infected mouse and human tissues to see if the biofilm formation helps Borrelia to survive and spread in the different tissues, Sapi says.

Her previous research showed that aggregates of Borrelia are very resistant to the antibiotics commonly used for Lyme disease treatment.  The new research showed that those aggregates are indeed true biofilms which are well-documented as resistant to unfavorable conditions and to antibiotics.

Sapi was a cancer researcher at Yale University when she joined the UNH faculty in 2001. The next summer, Sapi became ill with a strange malady. She suffered from insomnia and her motor skills were impaired. Constantly dizzy, she experienced chronic nausea.

“I went through several months of medical tests,” she says, “but they were all inconclusive.”

Finally, in desperation, she underwent magnetic resonance imaging. Physicians still couldn’t offer a definitive diagnosis, but they told her she might have Lyme disease.

“I didn’t know anything about Lyme disease,” says Sapi, who grew up in Hungary and earned her Ph.D. in genetics at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest before coming to the United States for postdoctoral training in molecular biology at the Yale University’s School of Medicine.

She began studying the disease with characteristic intensity. Eventually she found a physician who prescribed a regimen of anti-microbial drugs that provided relief. By then, Sapi had learned enough about Lyme disease to know she wanted to know more.

Eight years ago, she abandoned her research on ovarian cancer and turned her attention to the most prevalent tick-borne illness in the nation.

Lyme disease is caused by a spirochete called Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium carried by the tiny deer tick. First discovered in Connecticut in 1975, it has spread widely as the white-tailed deer population has exploded and it has become an expensive public health problem.

“Lyme disease costs the U.S. about a billion dollars a year, including inappropriate medical care, lost productivity and legal fees associated with misdiagnosis,” says Sapi.

Sapi’s research is supported by grants from the TBDA (formerly Turn the Corner Foundation), the Lyme Disease Association, CALDA, Lyme Research Alliance and UNH.  

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 on the campus of Yale University in cooperation with Northeastern University, UNH moved to its current West Haven campus in 1960. The University provides its students with a unique combination of a solid liberal arts education and real-world, hands-on career and research opportunities. UNH enrolls approximately 6,400 students, including nearly 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates – the majority of whom reside in University housing. Through its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Tagliatela College of Engineering, and College of Lifelong & eLearning, UNH offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. UNH students have access to more than 50 study abroad programs worldwide and its student-athletes compete in 16 varsity sports in the NCAA Division II’s highly competitive Northeast-10 Conference.