Genetic characterization of pilin glycosylation and phase variation in Neisseria meningitidis

P. M. Power, L. F. Roddam, K. Rutter, S. Z. Fitzpatrick, Y. N. Srikhanta, M. P. Jennings

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Pili of Neisseria meningitidis are a key virulence factor, being the major adhesin of this capsulate organism and contributing to specificity for the human host. Pili are post-translationally modified by addition of either an O-linked trisaccharide, Gal (β1-4) Gal (α1-3) 2,4-diacetamido-2,4,6-trideoxyhexose or an O-linked disaccharide Gal (α1,3) GlcNAc. The role of these structures in meningococcal pathogenesis has not been resolved. In previous studies we identified two separate genetic loci, pglA and pglBCD, involved in pilin glycosylation. Putative functions have been allocated to these genes; however, there are not enough genes to account for the complete biosynthesis of the described structures, suggesting additional genes remain to be identified. In addition, it is not known why some strains express the trisaccharide structure and some the disaccharide structure. In order to find additional genes involved in the biosynthesis of these structures, we used the recently published group A strain Z2491 and group B strain MC58 Neisseria meningitidis genomes and the unfinished Neisseria meningitidis group C strain FAM18 and Neisseria gonorrhoeae strain FA1090 genomes to identify novel genes involved in pilin glycosylation, based on homology to known oligosaccharide biosynthetic genes. We identified a new gene involved in pilin glycosylation designated pglE and examined four additional genes pglB/B2, pglF, pglG and pglH. A strain survey revealed that pglE and pglF were present in each strain examined. The pglG, pglH and pglB2 polymorphisms were not found in strain C311#3 but were present in a large number of clinical isolates. Insertional mutations were constructed in pglE and pglF in N. meningitidis strain C311#3, a strain with well-defined lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and pilin-linked glycan structures. Increased gel migration of the pilin subunit molecules of pglE and pglF mutants was observed by Western analysis, indicating truncation of the trisaccharide structure. Antisera specific for the C311#3 trisaccharide failed to react with pilin from these pglE and pglF mutants. GC-MS analysis of the sugar composition of the pglE mutant showed a reduction in galactose compared with C311#3 wild type. Analysis of amino acid sequence homologies has suggested specific roles for pglEand pglF in the biosynthesis of the trisaccharide structure. Further, we present evidence that pglE, which contains heptanucleotide repeats, is responsible for the phase variation between trisaccharide and disaccharide structures in strain C311#3 and other strains. We also present evidence that pglG, pglH and pglB2 are potentially phase variable.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)833-847
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular Microbiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2003
Externally publishedYes

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