Bordetella pertussis establishes infection by attaching to epithelial cells of the respiratory tract. One of its adhesins is filamentous haemagglutinin (FHA), a 500-A-long secreted protein that is rich in beta-structure and contains two regions, R1 and R2, of tandem 19-residue repeats. Two models have been proposed in which the central shaft is (i) a hairpin made up of a pairing of two long antiparallel beta-sheets; or (ii) a beta-helix in which the polypeptide chain is coiled to form three long parallel beta-sheets. We have analysed a truncated variant of FHA by electron microscopy (negative staining, shadowing and scanning transmission electron microscopy of unstained specimens): these observations support the latter model. Further support comes from detailed sequence analysis and molecular modelling studies. We applied a profile search method to the sequences adjacent to and between R1 and R2 and found additional "covert" copies of the same motifs that may be recognized in overt form in the R1 and R2 sequence repeats. Their total number is sufficient to support the tenet of the beta-helix model that the shaft domain--a 350 A rod--should consist of a continuous run of these motifs, apart from loop inserts. The N-terminus, which does not contain such repeats, was found to be weakly homologous to cyclodextrin transferase, a protein of known immunoglobulin-like structure. Drawing on crystal structures of known beta-helical proteins, we developed structural models of the coil motifs putatively formed by the R1 and R2 repeats. Finally, we applied the same profile search method to the sequence database and found several other proteins--all large secreted proteins of bacterial provenance--that have similar repeats and probably also similar structures.