The genetic basis of the phase variation repertoire of lipopolysaccharide immunotypes in Neisseria meningitidis

Michael P. Jennings, Yogitha N. Srikhanta, E. Richard Moxon, Marco Kramer, Jan T. Poolman, Betsy Kuipers, Peter Van Der Ley

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Neisseria meningitidis strains express a diverse range of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) structures that have been classified into 12 immunotypes. A feature of meningococcal LPS is the reversible, high-frequency switching of expression (phase variation) of terminal LPS structures. A number of studies are strongly suggestive of a key role for these terminal structures, and their phase-variable expression, in pathogenesis. In a previous study, a locus of three LPS biosynthetic genes, lgtABE, involved in the biosynthesis of one of these terminal structures, lacto-N-neotetraose, was described. The molecular mechanism of phase-variable expression of this structure is by high-frequency mutation in a homopolymeric tract of C residues in the lgtA gene. To investigate the genetic basis of the structural differences between the immunotypes, and the potential for strains to express alternative immunotypes, this locus was examined in all of the immunotype strains. Initially, the lgt locus of strain 126E, an L1 immunotype strain, was cloned and sequenced, revealing two active genes, lgtC and lgtE. The remnants of the lgtA and lgtB genes and an inactive lgtD gene were also present, indicating that the locus may have once contained five active genes, similar to a locus previously reported in Neisseria gonorrhoeae strain F62. Probes based on each of the lgt genes (ABCDE), and the recently reported lgtG gene, were used to determine the presence or absence of lgt genes within individual strains, allowing the prediction of the phase variation repertoire of these strains. Sequencing to determine the nature of homopolymeric tract regions within the lgt genes was carried out to establish the potential for LPS switching. In general, the set of strains examined could be sorted into two distinct groups: one group which phase-vary the α-chain extension via lgtA or lgtC but cannot make β-chain; the second group phase-vary the β-chain extension via lgtG but do not vary α-chain (lacto-N-neotetraose).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3013-3021
Number of pages9
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • lgt genes
  • Lipooligosaccharide
  • Lipopolysaccharide
  • Neisseria meningitidis
  • Phase variation

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