Antigenic variation of pilin regulates adhesion of Neisseria meningitidis to human epithelial cells

Mol Microbiol. 1993 May;8(4):719-25. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2958.1993.tb01615.x.


Pili have been shown to play an essential role in the adhesion of Neisseria meningitidis to epithelial cells. However, among piliated strains, both inter- and intrastrain variability exist with respect to their degree of adhesion to epithelial cells in vitro (Virji et al., 1992). This suggests that factors other than the presence of pili per se are involved in this process. The N. meningitidis pilin subunit undergoes extensive antigenic variation. Piliated low- and high-adhesive derivatives of the same N. meningitidis strain were selected and the nucleotide sequence of the pilin gene expressed in each was determined. The highly adhesive derivatives had the same pilin sequence. The alleles encoding the pilin subunit of the low-adhesive derivatives were completely different from the one found in the high-adhesive isolates. Using polyclonal antibodies raised against one hyperadhesive variant, it was confirmed that the low-adhesive piliated derivatives expressed pilin variants antigenically different from the highly adhesive strains. The role of antigenic variation in the adhesive process of N. meningitidis was confirmed by performing allelic exchanges of the pilE locus between low- and high-adhesive isolates. Antigenic variation has been considered a means by which virulent bacteria evade the host immune system. This work provides genetic proof that a bacterial pathogen, N. meningitidis, can use antigenic variation to modulate their degree of virulence.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Antigens, Bacterial / immunology
  • Bacterial Adhesion / genetics*
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / immunology
  • Bacterial Proteins / genetics
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Epithelium / microbiology
  • Fimbriae Proteins
  • Genetic Variation
  • Humans
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Neisseria meningitidis / genetics*
  • Neisseria meningitidis / immunology
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • pilE protein, Neisseria gonorrhoeae
  • Fimbriae Proteins