Variants of Neisseria gonorrhoeae MS11 show distinct colony morphologies because of the expression of a class of surface components called opacity (Opa, PII) proteins. Southern analyses combined with molecular cloning of genomic DNA from a single variant of MS11 has identified 11 opa genes contained in separate loci. These opa genes code for distinct opacity proteins which are distinguishable at their variable domains. The opa gene analyses were also extended to divergent variants of MS11. These studies have shown that, during in vitro and in vivo culture, 10 of the 11 opa genes did not undergo significant change in their primary sequence. However, in these variants, one gene (opaE) underwent non-reciprocal inter-opa recombinations to generate newer Opa variants. Phylogenic analysis of the opa gene sequences suggests that the opa gene family have evolved by a combination of gene duplication, gene replacement and partial inter-opa recombination events.