Pilin antigenic variation in Neisseria gonorrhoeae may result following intrachromosomal recombination between homologous pil genes. Despite extensive study, recA is the only previously characterized gene known to be involved in this process. In this study, the gonococcal recD gene, encoding one subunit of the putative RecBCD holoenzyme, was characterized and its role in pilin variation assessed. The complete recD gene of N. gonorrhoeae MS11 was cloned and its nucleotide sequence determined. The gonococcal recD gene complemented a defined Escherichia coli recD mutant, based on plaque formation of bacteriophage lambda and the restoration of ATP-dependent nuclease activity. Inactivation of the gonococcal recD gene had no measurable effect on cell viability or survival following UV exposure, but did decrease the frequency of DNA transformation approximately threefold. The frequency at which non-parental pilin phenotypes were spawned was 12-fold greater in MS11 recD mutants compared with the parental MS11 rec+ strain. Similar results were obtained using recD mutants that were not competent for DNA transformation. Complementation of the MS11 recD mutant with a wild-type recD gene copy restored the frequency of pilin phenotypic variation to approximately wild-type levels. The nucleotide changes at pilE in the recD mutants were confined to the variable regions of the gene and were similar to changes previously attributed to gene conversion.