A novel genetic switch controls phase variable expression of CwpV, a Clostridium difficile cell wall protein

Mol Microbiol. 2009 Nov;74(3):541-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2958.2009.06812.x. Epub 2009 Jul 28.


Clostridium difficile is a nosocomial pathogen that can cause severe gastrointestinal infections. C. difficile encodes a family of cell wall proteins, some of which are implicated in pathogenesis. Here we have characterized CwpV, the largest member of this family. CwpV is surface expressed and post-translationally processed in a manner analogous to the major S-layer protein SlpA. Expression of cwpV is phase variable, with approximately 5% of cells in a population expressing the protein under standard laboratory growth conditions. Upstream of cwpV, inverted repeats flank a 195 bp sequence which undergoes DNA inversion. Use of a gusA transcriptional reporter demonstrated that phase variation is mediated by DNA inversion; in one orientation cwpV is expressed while in the opposite orientation the gene is silent. The inversion region contains neither the promoter nor any of the open reading frame, therefore this system differs from previously described phase variation mechanisms. The cwpV promoter is located upstream of the inversion region and we propose a model of phase variation based on intrinsic terminator formation in the OFF transcript. A C. difficile site-specific recombinase able to catalyse the inversion has been identified.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Bacterial Typing Techniques
  • Base Sequence
  • Cell Wall / metabolism*
  • Chromosome Inversion
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • Clostridioides difficile / genetics*
  • Clostridioides difficile / metabolism
  • Conserved Sequence
  • DNA Nucleotidyltransferases / metabolism
  • DNA, Bacterial / chemistry
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial*
  • Multigene Family
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • DNA, Bacterial
  • Repressor Proteins
  • DNA Nucleotidyltransferases
  • Site-specific recombinase