The roles of antibodies and memory T cells in protection against virulent Ehrlichia have not been completely investigated. In this study, we addressed these issues by using murine models of mild and fatal ehrlichiosis caused by related monocytotropic Ehrlichia strains. Mice were primed with either Ehrlichia muris or closely related virulent ehrlichiae transmitted by Ixodes ovatus (IOE) ticks given intraperitoneally or intradermally. All groups were reinfected intraperitoneally, 30 days later, with a lethal high dose of IOE. Priming with E. muris, but not IOE, induced strong CD4+ and CD8+ memory type 1 T-cell responses, Ehrlichia-specific immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, and persistent infection. Compared to IOE-primed mice, subsequent lethal IOE challenge of E. muris-primed mice, resulted in (i) 100% protection against lethal infection, (ii) strong Ehrlichia-specific secondary gamma interferon (IFN-γ)-producing effector/effector memory CD4+ and CD8 + T-cell responses, (iii) enhanced secondary anti-ehrlichial antibody response, (iv) accelerated bacterial clearance, and (v) the formation of granulomas in the liver and lung. E. muris-primed mice challenged with IOE had lower levels of serum interleukin-1α (IL-1α), IL-6, and IL-10 compared to unprimed mice challenged with IOE. Interestingly, the fatal secondary response in IOE-primed mice correlated with (i) decline in the Ehrlichia-specific CD4+ and CD8+ type 1 responses, (ii) marked hepatic apoptosis and necrosis, and (iii) substantial bacterial clearance, suggesting that fatal secondary response is due to immune-mediated tissue damage. In conclusion, protection against fatal ehrlichial infection correlates with strong expansion of IFN-γ-producing CD4+ and CD8+ effector memory type 1 T cells, which appear to be maintained in the presence of IgG antibodies and persistent infection.
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