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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45132. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045132. Epub 2012 Sep 20.

Opc expression, LPS immunotype switch and pilin conversion contribute to serum resistance of unencapsulated meningococci.

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University of Würzburg, Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology, Würzburg, Germany.


Neisseria meningitidis employs polysaccharides and outer membrane proteins to cope with human serum complement attack. To screen for factors influencing serum resistance, an assay was developed based on a colorimetric serum bactericidal assay. The screening used a genetically modified sequence type (ST)-41/44 clonal complex (cc) strain lacking LPS sialylation, polysaccharide capsule, the factor H binding protein (fHbp) and MutS, a protein of the DNA repair mechanism. After killing of >99.9% of the bacterial cells by serum treatment, the colorimetric assay was used to screen 1000 colonies, of which 35 showed enhanced serum resistance. Three mutant classes were identified. In the first class of mutants, enhanced expression of Opc was identified. Opc expression was associated with vitronectin binding and reduced membrane attack complex deposition confirming recent observations. Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) immunotype switch from immunotype L3 to L8/L1 by lgtA and lgtC phase variation represented the second class. Isogenic mutant analysis demonstrated that in ST-41/44 cc strains the L8/L1 immunotype was more serum resistant than the L3 immunotype. Consecutive analysis revealed that the immunotypes L8 and L1 were frequently observed in ST-41/44 cc isolates from both carriage and disease. Immunotype switch to L8/L1 is therefore suggested to contribute to the adaptive capacity of this meningococcal lineage. The third mutant class displayed a pilE allelic exchange associated with enhanced autoaggregation. The mutation of the C terminal hypervariable region D of PilE included a residue previously associated with increased pilus bundle formation. We suggest that autoaggregation reduced the surface area accessible to serum complement and protected from killing. The study highlights the ability of meningococci to adapt to environmental stress by phase variation and intrachromosomal recombination affecting subcapsular antigens.

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