BACKGROUND: Rickettsia heilongjiangensis, the agent of Far-Eastern spotted fever (FESF), is an obligate intracellular bacterium. The surface-exposed proteins (SEPs) of rickettsiae are involved in rickettsial adherence to and invasion of host cells, intracellular bacterial growth, and/or interaction with immune cells. They are also potential molecular candidates for the development of diagnostic reagents and vaccines against rickettsiosis. METHODS: R. heilongjiangensis SEPs were identified by biotin-streptavidin affinity purification and 2D electrophoreses coupled with ESI-MS/MS. Recombinant SEPs were probed with various sera to analyze their serological characteristics using a protein microarray and an enzyme-linked immune sorbent assay (ELISA). RESULTS: Twenty-five SEPs were identified,... most of which were predicted to reside on the surface of R. heilongjiangensis cells. Bioinformatics analysis suggests that these proteins could be involved in bacterial pathogenesis. Eleven of the 25 SEPs were recognized as major seroreactive antigens by sera from R. heilongjiangensis-infected mice and FESF patients. Among the major seroreactive SEPs, microarray assays and/or ELISAs revealed that GroEL, OmpA-2, OmpB-3, PrsA, RplY, RpsB, SurA and YbgF had modest sensitivity and specificity for recognizing R. heilongjiangensis infection and/or spotted fever. CONCLUSIONS: Many of the SEPs identified herein have potentially important roles in R. heilongjiangensis pathogenicity. Some of them have potential as serodiagnostic antigens or as subunit vaccine antigens against the disease.