IgA protease is a putative virulence factor that exists in several allelic forms in Neisseria gonorrhoeae. However, extracellular secretion of these variant IgA proteases occurs by the same pathway involving three steps of autoproteolytic maturation from a large precursor. Two principal precursor types (H1 and H2) can be distinguished with respect to the location of autoproteolytic sites and the sizes of the mature products. By partial DNA sequence analysis, additional variations have been detected which are not unique to one particular gene; rather, otherwise unrelated iga genes often share homology, thus revealing a composite organization. In the context of other gonococcal features, this observation implies that recombination has occurred in vivo between iga genes of different strains, probably via the route of species-specific DNA transformation. This process may be of general significance for the modulation and the natural exchange of virulence properties among pathogenic Neisseriae.