Type IV pili are a major virulence factor of the obligate human pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae (the gonococcus; Gc). Pili facilitate bacterial adherence to epithelial cells, but their participation in later steps of epithelial infection, particularly intracellular replication and exit, is poorly understood. Using polarized T84 cells as a model for mature mucosal epithelia, pilus dynamics in piliated, Opa-expressing Gc were examined over time. T84 infection was characterized by a several-hour delay in the growth of cell-associated bacteria and by non-directional exit of Gc, the first time these phenomena have been reported. During infection, non-piliated progeny arose stochastically from piliated progenitors. Piliated and non-piliated Gc replicated and exited from T84 cell monolayers equally well, demonstrating that piliation did not influence Gc survival during epithelial infection. The frequency with which pilin variants arose from a defined piliated progenitor during T84 cell infection was found to be sufficiently high to account for the extensive pilin variation reported during human infection. However, the repertoire of variants appearing in association with T84 cells was similar to what was seen in the absence of cells, demonstrating that polarized epithelial cells can support Gc replication without selecting for a subset of pilin variants or piliation states.
ASJC Scopus subject areas