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Adherence of capsulate Neisseria meningitidis to endothelial and epithelial cells is facilitated in variants that express pili. Whereas piliated variants of N. meningitidis strain C311 adhered to endothelial cells in large numbers (> 150 bacteria/cell), derivatives containing specific mutations that disrupt pilE encoding the pilin subunit were both non-piliated and failed to adhere to endothelial cells (< 1 bacterium/cell). In addition, meningococcal pili recognized human endothelial and epithelial cells but not cells originating from other animals. Variants of strain C311 were obtained that expressed pilins of reduced apparent M(r) and exhibited a marked increase in adherence to epithelial cells. Structural analysis of pilins from two hyper-adherent variants and the parent strain were carried out by DNA sequencing of their pilE genes. Deduced molecular weights of pilins were considerably lower compared with their apparent M(r) values on SDS-PAGE. Hyper-adherent pilins shared unique changes in sequence including substitution of Asn-113 for Asp-113 and changes from Asn-Asp-Thr-Asp to Thr-Asp-Ala-Lys at residues 127-130 in mature pilin. Asn residues 113 and 127 of 'parental' pilin both form part of the typical eukaryotic N-glycosylation motif Asn-X-Ser/Thr and could potentially be glycosylated post-translationally. The presence of carbohydrate on pilin was demonstrated and when pilins were deglycosylated, their migration on SDS-PAGE increased, supporting the notion that variable glycosylation accounts for discrepancies in apparent and deduced molecular weights. Functionally distinct pilins produced by two fully piliated variants of a second strain (MC58) differed only in that the putative glycosylation motif Asn-60-Asn-61-Thr-62 in an adherent variant was replaced with Asp-60-Asn-61-Ser-62 in a non-adherent variant. Fully adherent backswitchers obtained from the non-adherent variant always regained Asn-60 but retained Ser-62. We propose, therefore, that functional variations in N. meningitidis pili may be modulated in large part by primary amino acid sequence changes that ablate or create N-linked glycosylation sites on the pilin subunit.


Journal article


Mol Microbiol

Publication Date





1013 - 1028


Amino Acid Sequence, Bacterial Adhesion, Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins, Base Sequence, Cell Line, DNA Primers, DNA, Bacterial, Endothelium, Epithelium, Fimbriae Proteins, Fimbriae, Bacterial, Genetic Variation, Glycosylation, Humans, Microscopy, Electron, Scanning, Molecular Sequence Data, Molecular Weight, Neisseria meningitidis, Phenotype, Sequence Homology, Amino Acid