The synthesis and turnover of heat shock proteins (Hsps) by Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme disease spirochete, was investigated by radiolabeling of whole spirochetes and spheroplasts, comparison of one- and two-dimensional sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, and use of immunochemistry. The approximately 72-kDa DnaK homolog and three additional Hsps of 39, 27, and 21 kDa increased in amount by 3- to 15-fold between 2 and 6 h following temperature upshift from 28 to 39 degrees C. Temperature downshift experiments following the transfer of spirochetes from 40 to 28 degrees C showed that within 15 to 30 min, synthesis of most of the major Hsps returned to levels seen in spirochetes statically maintained at the lower temperature. Spheroplasts of B. burgdorferi produced by treatment with EDTA and lysozyme were radiolabeled, and specific Hsps were localized to either the cytoplasm or membrane fraction. Further analysis by two-dimensional electrophoresis demonstrated three constitutively expressed DnaK isoforms with pIs near 5.5. A pattern suggestive of DnaK degradation was observed following recovery from heat shock but not in spirochetes maintained entirely at a low temperature. Some of these putative degradation products were recognized by monoclonal antibodies directed against the B. burgdorferi DnaK protein. These data suggest that following a period of peak synthesis, DnaK is actively degraded as the spirochete reestablishes its metabolic thermometer. These findings provide a new interpretation of previous work suggesting that 10 to 15 B. burgdorferi polypeptides, including DnaK have a common epitope.