A semi-quantitative real-time RT-PCR assay was designed to measure gonococcal pilin antigenicvariation (SQ-PCR Av assay). This assay employs 17 hybridization probe sets that quantitate subpopulations of pilin transcripts carrying different silent pilin copy sequences and one set that detects total pilE transcript levels. Mixtures of a DNA standard carrying the silent copy being detected and a clone encoding the starting pilE sequence, which is the majority pilE template, provided amplification curves that closely matched the experimental data and allowed an analysis of the contribution of different silent pilin copies to variation. The SQ-PCR Av assay was verified using DNA sequence analysis to demonstrate that this methodology allowed an accurate analysis of pilin variation. Both assays showed that with a specific starting pilE sequence, only a subset of the silent pilin copies recombine into pilE at a detectable level, and that this limited subset was reproducibly detected in replicate cultures. When an isogenic pilE sequence variant was examined using both assays, a new subset of silent copy sequences were detected recombining into pilE and the overall frequency of variation was increased. Thus, the parental pilE sequence influences the frequency of variation and the repertoire of pilin variants produced.
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