Deconvolution of intergenic polymorphisms determining high expression of Factor H binding protein in meningococcus and their association with invasive disease

PLoS Pathog. 2021 Mar 26;17(3):e1009461. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1009461. eCollection 2021 Mar.


Neisseria meningitidis is a strictly human pathogen and is the major cause of septicemia and meningitis worldwide. Factor H binding protein (fHbp) is a meningococcal surface-exposed lipoprotein that binds the human Complement factor H allowing the bacterium to evade the host innate immune response. FHbp is also a key antigen in two vaccines against N. meningitidis serogroup B. Although the fHbp gene is present in most circulating meningococcal strains, level of fHbp expression varies among isolates and has been correlated to differences in promoter sequences upstream of the gene. Here we elucidated the sequence determinants that control fHbp expression in globally circulating strains. We analyzed the upstream fHbp intergenic region (fIR) of more than 5800 strains representative of the UK circulating isolates and we identified eleven fIR sequence alleles which represent 88% of meningococcal strains. By engineering isogenic recombinant strains where fHbp expression was under the control of each of the eleven fIR alleles, we confirmed that the fIR sequence determines a specific and distinct level of expression. Moreover, we identified the molecular basis for variation in expression through polymorphisms within key regulatory regions that are known to affect fHbp expression. We experimentally established three expression groups, high-medium-low, that correlated directly with the susceptibility to killing mediated by anti-fHbp antibodies and the ability of the meningococcal strain to survive within human serum. By using this sequence classification and information about the variant, we predicted fHbp expression in the panel of UK strains and we observed that strains with higher expressing fIR alleles are more likely associated with invasive disease. Overall, our findings can contribute to understand and predict vaccine coverage mediated by fHbp as well as to shed light on the role of this virulence factor in determining an invasive phenotype.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Meningococcal Infections / genetics*
  • Meningococcal Vaccines
  • Neisseria meningitidis / genetics*
  • Polymorphism, Genetic


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Meningococcal Vaccines
  • factor H-binding protein, Neisseria meningitidis

Grant support

This study was sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals SA which had a role in the study design, collection, analysis, interpretation of data and the writing of the manuscript as well as the decision to submit for its publication. This work was supported in part by EUCLIDS Grant FP7 GA 279185.