Previously, we have shown that a multicopy family of related but unique genes encodes the major surface glycoprotein (MSG) of Pneumocystis carinii. To examine whether different members of this gene family are expressed by P. carinii, antisera were prepared against peptides whose sequences were determined from the deduced amino acid sequences of variants of rat-derived MSG. Immunohistochemical staining of serial sections of rat lungs of infected animals showed that at least three variants of MSG were expressed in an individual lobe, that there was a focal expression of these variants within the lung, and that the relative numbers of these foci were different. Indirect immunofluorescent staining of purified P. carinii organisms using these antisera revealed that at least three variants of MSG were present in organisms isolated from an individual rat and that both cysts and trophozoites reacted with each antiserum. A substantial difference in the fraction of organisms reacting with a specific antipeptide antiserum was seen when comparing organisms isolated from rats raised in a single colony over a period of two years as well as organisms isolated at one time point from rats raised in different colonies. This demonstration of antigenic variation in P. carinii supports the hypothesis that P. carinii utilizes such variation for evading host defense mechanisms.

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