Pilus+ to pilus- transitions of gonococci (Gc) that involve rearrangement of pilin gene DNA yield the P-n phenotype, which is incapable of reversion (to pilus+). Reversion to pilus+ is found for nonpiliated Gc that have undergone no apparent pilin gene rearrangement. Among the reverting, nonpiliated Gc, two distinct phenotypes (P-rp- and P-rp+) occur and are differentiated according to their synthesis (or lack) of pilin subunits; both P-rp- and P-rp+ Gc contain pilin-specific mRNA. The occurrence of these different pilus- phenotypes strongly suggests that several mechanisms can account for changes in the piliation status of Gc; one of these involves pilin gene rearrangement but the others apparently operate at posttranscriptional levels. Reverting pilus- Gc may have a pathogenic advantage in being able to reversibly alter their host cell adherence-promoting surface properties through high frequency transitions in piliation status.

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