Intragenic recombination leads to pilus antigenic variation in Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Nature. 1985 May 9-15;315(6015):156-8. doi: 10.1038/315156a0.


The pilus of the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a fimbriate surface structure which promotes attachment of the bacterium to host epithelial cells. Gonococcal pilus phase variation is characterized by a rapid on/off switch in which piliated (P+) cells throw off non-piliated (P-) variants and vice versa. Two regions of the gonococcal chromosome (pilE1 and pilE2) act as pilin expression loci, reminiscent of the MAT locus in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, while several other chromosomal regions contain silent (non-expressing) pilin sequences. Biochemical and antigenic diversity is seen in pili from a wide variety of clinical isolates. Pilins (pilus subunits) are composed of conserved N-terminal and variable C-terminal regions; the conserved region of gonococcal pilin is also found in pilins produced by widely disparate bacteria. We show here that the gonococcal pilin undergoes antigenic variation in vitro and in vivo. The protein consists of constant, semi-variable and hypervariable regions. This antigenic variation probably involves gene conversion of mini-cassettes of pilin information.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / genetics*
  • Base Sequence
  • Fimbriae Proteins
  • Fimbriae, Bacterial / immunology*
  • Gene Conversion
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Genes
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae / genetics
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae / immunology*
  • Recombination, Genetic


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • Fimbriae Proteins