Moraxella bovis was instilled into the conjunctival sac of gnotobiotic calves and corneas were sampled serially after infection. Lesions developed in seven of eight infected calves, but were absent in a noninfected control calf. Histologically, M. bovis was first seen in foci of swollen epithelium and within basal epithelial cells adjacent to ulcers. Corneal ulcers were severe in later stages of infection; fibrin deposits, neutrophils, and bacteria were present in the stromas. Examination of early lesions by scanning electron microscopy showed M. bovis in pits on the surfaces of dark epithelial cells, enmeshed in degenerate epithelial cells and within erosions and an ulcer; in later samples, bacteria were rare. Ultrastructurally, M. bovis was seen in surface pits in superficial epithelial cell processes and within swollen epithelial cells. In stroma, M. bovis was frequently seen among collagen fibrils, within neutrophil phagosomes, and associated with cellular debris. This study demonstrates that a virulent strain of M. bovis can invade bovine corneal epithelial cells and can cause keratitis in the absence of injurious ultraviolet irradiation or other known predisposing environmental factors.
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