During natural infection, gonococcal opacity proteins (Opa) undergo rapid phase variation, but how this phenomenon contributes to the virulence of the bacteria is not well understood. In the present immunomorphological study we examined the actual Opa status of individual gonococci during various stages of gonococcal infection of Chang epithelial cells, by probing ultrathin sections of infected specimens with Opa-specific monoclonal antibodies. Our results demonstrate a heterogeneous Opa expression during the initial interaction of the bacteria, but an almost 100% expression of one of the probed Opas during their secondary attachment and entry into the host cells, suggesting a role for distinct Opas in cellular penetration. The association between Opa expression, tight attachment, and bacterial invasion into the host cells could be confirmed with isogenic variants that expressed different Opa proteins. Once inside the epithelial cells, both morphologically intact, Opa positive and morphologically disintegrated, Opa negative bacteria were observed. The loss of Opa immunoreactivity in intracellular gonococci could not be related to the presence of a particular Opa protein, but could be mimicked by incubating the organisms with extracts of sonicated uninfected epithelial cells, suggesting that it was caused by host cell proteolytic activity. Taken together, our data suggest that Opa phase transitions confer a functional adaptation of the bacteria enabling host cell penetration.

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