Questions about gonococcal pilus phase- and antigenic variation

Mol Microbiol. 1996 Aug;21(3):433-40. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2958.1996.tb02552.x.


Pathogenic organisms inhabit one of several defined locations within a host where temperature, pH, and nutrients are relatively constant. While the microorganism must adapt to different environments within the host, the host immune system is the most formidable predator that can limit the growth of a pathogen. Neisseria gonorrhoeae (the gonococcus, Gc) is the causative agent of gonorrhoea, and has evolved several systems for varying the antigenicity of different surface antigens, presumably to help evade the effects of the human immune system. The On/Off/On phase variation of surface structure expression also alters the antigenic characteristics of the bacterial cell surface. Antigenic variation of the major subunit of the pilus, pilin, occurs by unidirectional, homologous recombination between a silent locus and the expression locus. The silent loci lie from 1 to 900 kb from the expression locus in the chromosome yet all can donate their sequences to the expression locus. The genetic composition of the pilin loci of two Gc strains has been elucidated, and the types of changes that lead to altered forms of the pilus have been extensively characterized. However, little is known about the precise molecular mechanisms used to allow high-frequency, non-reciprocal, chromosomal recombination between pilin loci or about what regulates the process of maintaining chromosome fidelity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antigenic Variation / immunology*
  • Antigens, Bacterial / immunology*
  • Bacterial Adhesion
  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / immunology
  • Fimbriae Proteins
  • Fimbriae, Bacterial / immunology*
  • Gonorrhea / microbiology
  • Humans
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae / immunology*
  • Pili, Sex / immunology*


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