Expression of outer membrane protein II (P.II) of Neisseria gonorrhoeae is subject to reversible phase variation at a rate of 10(-3)-10(-4)/cell/generation. The signal peptide coding regions of P.II genes contain variable numbers of tandem repeats of the sequence CTCTT. Changes in the number of CTCTT units, leading to frameshifting within the gene, are responsible for changes in P.II expression. Phase variation mediated by the CTCTT repeat also occurred in E. coli, as assayed with a P.II-alkaline phosphatase (phoA) gene fusion. Phase variation in both the gonococcus and E. coli was recA-independent, occurred at similar rates, and involved insertions or deletions of one or more repeat units. The characteristics of the phase variation process were consistent with a model in which expression of P.II genes is regulated by slipped-strand mispairing of the DNA in the CTCTT repeat region.