Johne's disease is an economically significant intestinal disease caused by Mycobacterium avium subsp paratuberculosis (M. paratuberculosis). A recent survey estimated that 20%–40% of dairy herds in the United States are infected with M. paratuberculosis and producers lose $227 USD annually for each infected animal . These costs are mostly attributed to the decreased milk production and weight loss resulting from the disease.
After M. paratuberculosis infection by ingestion of contaminated milk or grass containing fecal material from a shedding cow, there is a lengthy subclinical phase that can last for several years. During this stage the cows may appear healthy, but can intermittently shed low numbers of mycobacteria in the feces, enabling transmission to other animals including wildlife species. A major challenge in controlling Johne's disease is the ability to detect infected cattle prior to appearance of disease signs, such as diarrhea and heavy fecal shedding of M. paratuberculosis. An unknown trigger, possibly stress during lactation or parturition, advances the disease from subclinical to clinical where disease signs such as weight loss and diarrhea become evident [2, 3]. This trigger appears to coincide with a shift in immune function from a Th1 response to a Th2 response . Current detection of subclinical animals depends on the timing and sensitivity of the test. Even the most sensitive culture-based tests will not detect M. paratuberculosis if a subclinically infected animal is not shedding bacilli at the time the fecal or milk sample is collected. M. paratuberculosis antigen induced interferon (IFN)-γ has been shown to be elevated in subclinical animals, but this cytokine declines in the clinical stage concomitant with an increase in M. paratuberculosis specific IL-10 production [5, 6]. A comprehensive cytokine profile has been reported for both circulating monocytes and local tissues obtained from M. paratuberculosis-infected cattle .
With a few notable exceptions [8–10], there is very little data on antibody detection of M. paratuberculosis at early stages of infection in cattle. There are several reasons for this, but one in particular is that cattle that appear healthy are not routinely evaluated using serial test bleeds and analysis. Furthermore, there are numerous studies that show the cell-mediated immune response in cattle predominates during the early stages of infection and is responsible for the initial control of this infection [4, 6, 11]. However, despite the lack of data describing the temporal detection of specific antigens by host antibodies early post infection, these experiments are critical to gain a better understanding of the pathogenesis, diagnostics and vaccine strategies for Johne's disease. For example, the ideal diagnostic antigen would be detected early and remain easily detected throughout the course of the disease. Alternatively, a good vaccine candidate antigen might only be detectable by antibody at a specific stage of the disease. Thus far, no such antigen has been discovered for Johne's disease.
The recent literature has revealed an emphasis on developing consensus animal models for Johne's disease study. One publication  is a result of an international meeting, sponsored by the Johne's Disease Integrated Program in the United States, which had the goal of proposing consensus animal models for each of the commodity groups including sheep and cattle as well as farmed deer in New Zealand. Detailed methods including dose, route, length of time for disease signs to appear, etc. were determined . A second communication, published independently around the same time, provided similar information . Prior to these comprehensive animal model reviews, we published a study describing the intratonsillar route of infection with M. paratuberculosis in neonatal calves . Serial test bleeds were collected over the course of the 321-day study and analyzed for T cell and B cell responses using a variety of immunological assays. Selected test bleeds from that study were used on the protein array in the current study. The health status of these calves was further monitored using additional tests, including fecal culture and IS900 PCR. Although M. paratuberculosis was detected in all calves by 271 days post challenge, no clinical signs were observed in any animal throughout the study . However, an antibody response was observed by 134 days post infection using a lipoarabinomannan-based ELISA test. A second study that evaluated an experimental infection of goats observed an antibody response as soon as 180 days post infection .
The study described herein combines the intratonsillar infection model  with newly developed protein array tools to obtain a temporal picture of antigen detection during the initial year of infection in cattle. While the concept of protein arrays has been around nearly as long as the DNA array, there are very few protein arrays available. This is because the process of constructing these arrays involves the production of dozens of specific proteins, a rate limiting and labor-intensive step when compared to oligonucleotide synthesis used in constructing DNA arrays. Nonetheless, studies using bacterial protein arrays are beginning to appear in the literature [15–17] due to the power provided by this tool for parallel protein analyses. Our laboratory initially developed a 48 spot protein array consisting of purified recombinant proteins representing selected M. paratuberculosis gene products . That array was expanded to a 96-spot array and used in this study.