The fate of the major outer membrane protein of the gonococcus, P.IB, during the adherence, entry, and intracellular processing of the bacteria in infected epithelial cells was investigated using post-embedding immunoelectron microscopy. Various domains of the P.IB molecule were probed at different stages in the infection. These studies revealed that P.IB epitope exposure remained unaltered during the initial attachment of the bacteria to the host cells. In contrast, upon secondary attachment of the bacteria to the eukaryotic cells, apparent zones of adhesion were formed between the gonococci and the host cell membrane, which were characterized by loss of a defined P.IB epitope. These zones of adhesion with the altered P.IB immunoreactivity continued to exist and increased in number during cellular penetration, suggesting that they were essential to bacterial invasion into the eukaryotic cells. After bacterial entry, two classes of gonococci could be recognized; morphologically intact, P.IB-positive bacteria and disintegrated organisms that showed a change in, and, in a later stage, a complete loss of P.IB immunoreactivity. The intracellular alterations in the P.IB antigen could be prevented by treatment of the host cells with the lysosomotropic agent chloroquine. These observations point to a mechanism by which a subpopulation of intracellular gonococci can escape the epithelial cell defense by preventing or resisting exposure to host cell proteolytic activity.

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