To learn how lipooligosaccharide (LOS) phase variations affect pathogenesis, we studied two male volunteers who were challenged intraurethrally with Neisseria gonorrhoeae that make a single LOS of 3,600 daltons and sequentially followed LOS expression by gonococci as urethritis developed. LOS variation occurred in vivo. Signs and symptoms of gonorrhea began with the appearance of variants making 4,700-dalton LOS that are immunochemically similar to glycosphingolipids of human hematopoietic cells (Mandrell, R.E., J.M. Griffiss, and B.A. Macher. 1989. J. Exp. Med. 168:107) and that have acceptors for sialic acid. A variant that appeared at the onset of leukorrhoea was shed by 34/36 men with naturally acquired gonorrhea at the time they sought medical attention; the other two shed the variant associated with dysuria. None shed the challenge variant. These data show that in vivo phase shifts to higher molecular mass LOS that mimic human cell membrane glycolipids are associated with the development of gonococcal leukorrhea.

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