To determine the burden and viability of Borrelia burgdorferi in the skin and joints of patients with Lyme disease.
Standard and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques were used to detect B burgdorferi DNA in skin samples from 90 patients with erythema migrans (EM) and in synovial fluid (SF) from 63 patients with Lyme arthritis (LA) and in synovial tissue from 9 patients. Quantitative PCR determinations of B burgdorferi DNA, messenger RNA (mRNA), and ribosomal RNA (rRNA) were made in 10 skin samples from EM patients and 11 SF samples from LA patients.
Skin lesions in most patients with EM had positive PCR results for B burgdorferi DNA. In the majority of patients with LA, a late disease manifestation, PCR results in pretreatment SF samples were positive. In patients with antibiotic-refractory arthritis, positive PCR results persisted for as long as 11 months, but positive results in samples taken during the postantibiotic period did not correlate with relapse or with the subsequent duration of arthritis, and at synovectomy, all results of PCR of synovial tissue were negative. B burgdorferi mRNA, a marker of spirochetal viability, was detected in 8 of 10 skin samples from EM patients, but in none of 11 SF samples from LA patients, even when obtained prior to antibiotic administration. Moreover, the median ratio of spirochetal rRNA to DNA, a measure of ribosomal activity, was 160 in the 10 EM skin samples, but only 0.15 in the 3 LA SF samples with positive results.
B burgdorferi in the skin lesions of EM patients were active and viable, whereas those in the SF of LA patients were moribund or dead at any time point. Thus, detection of B burgdorferi DNA in SF is not a reliable test of active joint infection in Lyme disease