Pathogenic microorganisms employ numerous molecular strategies in order to delay or circumvent recognition by the immune system of their host. One of the most widely used strategies of immune evasion is antigenic variation, in which immunogenic molecules expressed on the surface of a microorganism are continuously modified. As a consequence, the host is forced to constantly adapt its humoral immune response against this pathogen. An antigenic change thus provides the microorganism with an opportunity to persist and/or replicate within the host (population) for an extended period of time or to effectively infect a previously infected host. In most cases, antigenic variation is caused by genetic processes that lead to the modification of the amino acid sequence of a particular antigen or to alterations in the expression of biosynthesis genes that induce changes in the expression of a variant antigen. Here, we will review antigenic variation systems that rely on homologous DNA recombination and that are found in a wide range of cellular, human pathogens, including bacteria (such as Neisseria spp., Borrelia spp., Treponema pallidum, and Mycoplasma spp.), fungi (such as Pneumocystis carinii) and parasites (such as the African trypanosome Trypanosoma brucei). Specifically, the various DNA recombination-based antigenic variation systems will be discussed with a focus on the employed mechanisms of recombination, the DNA substrates, and the enzymatic machinery involved.
Keywords: Mycoplasma; Neisseria; Pneumocystis; Treponema; Trypanosoma; gene conversion.
© 2012 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved.