Genomic insights into the ancient spread of Lyme disease across North America

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 115691576 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0282-8
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Lyme disease is the most prevalent vector-borne disease in North America and continues to spread. The disease was first clinically described in the 1970s in Lyme, Connecticut, but the origins and history of spread of the Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto (s.s.), are unknown. To explore the evolutionary history of B. burgdorferi in North America, we collected ticks from across the USA and southern Canada from 1984 to 2013 and sequenced the, to our knowledge, largest collection of 146 B. burgdorferi s.s. genomes. Here, we show that B. burgdorferi s.s. has a complex evolutionary history with previously undocumented levels of migration. Diversity is ancient and geographically widespread, well pre-dating the Lyme disease epidemic of the past ~40 years, as well as the Last Glacial Maximum ~20,000 years ago. This means the recent emergence of human Lyme disease probably reflects ecological change—climate change and land use changes over the past century—rather than evolutionary change of the bacterium.

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This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease Program grant R01 GM105246 and by NIH grant R21AI112938. K.S.W. was supported by the NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F31 AI118233-01A1) and the NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DEB-1401143). G.C. was supported by the Gaylord Donnelley Postdoctoral Environmental Fellowship (the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies). We thank N. Ogden, J. Brinkerhoff, S. Paskewitz, D. Fish and S. Bent for providing tick samples; P. Flynn and J. Underwood for laboratory work; C. Ben Mamoun and P. Krause for discussions; and R. Bjornson and the Yale High Performance Computing Center for computational support.

Author information

Author notes

  1. Adalgisa Caccone and Maria A. Diuk-Wasser contributed equally to this work


  1. Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Disease, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 06511, USA

    • Katharine S. Walter
  2. Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, 21205, USA

    • Giovanna Carpi
  3. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 06511, USA

    • Adalgisa Caccone
  4. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, New York City, NY, 10027, USA

    • Maria A. Diuk-Wasser


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K.S.W., M.A.D.-W., A.C. and G.C. conceived of and designed the experiments. K.S.W. performed the experiments and analysed the data. M.A.D.-W., A.C., G.C. and K.S.W. contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools. K.S.W., M.A.D.-W. and A.C. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katharine S. Walter.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures; Supplementary Tables, and Supplementary References

  2. Supplementary Dataset

    Sample descriptions. For each bacterial sample, the biological source, sampling location, and B. burgdorferi mapping statisticsSample descriptions. For each bacterial sample, the biological source, sampling location, and B. burgdorferi mapping statistics