The growth kinetics of pathogenic and nonpathogenic rickettsiae were compared to elucidate the mechanism responsible for the pathogenicity of rickettsiae. Vero and HeLa cells derived from mammals were inoculated with a nonpathogenic species of spotted fever group rickettsia, Rickettsia montanensis, before being infected with the pathogenic species Rickettsia japonica. The mammalian cells became persistently infected with R. montanensis and produced low levels of rickettsiae. On the other hand, superinfection of the R. montanensis-infected cells with R. japonica resulted in increased yields of R. montanensis accompanied by R. japonica growth. Both rickettsiae also grew well in the R. japonica-infected cells subjected to superinfection with R. montanensis. Western blotting with an antibody to the autophagy-related protein LC3B found that autophagy was induced in the cells infected with R. montanensis alone. On the contrary, autophagy was restricted in the cells that were co-infected with R. japonica. Electron microscopy of the cells infected with R. montanensis alone demonstrated rickettsia particles being digested in intracytoplasmic vacuoles. Conversely, many freely growing rickettsiae were detected in the co-infected cells.