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Sequence, distribution and chromosomal context of class I and class II pilin genes of Neisseria meningitidis identified in whole genome sequences

Mirka E Wörmann1, Corey L Horien2, Julia S Bennett3, Keith A Jolley3, Martin C J Maiden3, Christoph M Tang1, Ellen L Aho2* and Rachel M Exley1*

Author Affiliations

1 Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3RE, UK

2 Department of Biology, Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, USA

3 Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK

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BMC Genomics 2014, 15:253  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-253

Published: 1 April 2014



Neisseria meningitidis expresses type four pili (Tfp) which are important for colonisation and virulence. Tfp have been considered as one of the most variable structures on the bacterial surface due to high frequency gene conversion, resulting in amino acid sequence variation of the major pilin subunit (PilE). Meningococci express either a class I or a class II pilE gene and recent work has indicated that class II pilins do not undergo antigenic variation, as class II pilE genes encode conserved pilin subunits. The purpose of this work was to use whole genome sequences to further investigate the frequency and variability of the class II pilE genes in meningococcal isolate collections.


We analysed over 600 publically available whole genome sequences of N. meningitidis isolates to determine the sequence and genomic organization of pilE. We confirmed that meningococcal strains belonging to a limited number of clonal complexes (ccs, namely cc1, cc5, cc8, cc11 and cc174) harbour a class II pilE gene which is conserved in terms of sequence and chromosomal context. We also identified pilS cassettes in all isolates with class II pilE, however, our analysis indicates that these do not serve as donor sequences for pilE/pilS recombination. Furthermore, our work reveals that the class II pilE locus lacks the DNA sequence motifs that enable (G4) or enhance (Sma/Cla repeat) pilin antigenic variation. Finally, through analysis of pilin genes in commensal Neisseria species we found that meningococcal class II pilE genes are closely related to pilE from Neisseria lactamica and Neisseria polysaccharea, suggesting horizontal transfer among these species.


Class II pilins can be defined by their amino acid sequence and genomic context and are present in meningococcal isolates which have persisted and spread globally. The absence of G4 and Sma/Cla sequences adjacent to the class II pilE genes is consistent with the lack of pilin subunit variation in these isolates, although horizontal transfer may generate class II pilin diversity. This study supports the suggestion that high frequency antigenic variation of pilin is not universal in pathogenic Neisseria.

Type four pilus; Neisseria meningitidis; Class I pilin; Class II pilin; Antigenic variation