The hypothesized variable expression of polymorphic membrane proteins (PmpA-PmpI) in Chlamydia trachomatis-infected patients was tested by examination of the expression of each Pmp subtype in in vitro-grown C. trachomatis. A panel of monospecific polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies was used to demonstrate surface exposure of Pmps of each subtype by differential immunofluorescence (IF) with and without prior detergent permeabilization of paraformaldehyde-fixed inclusions and for selected Pmps by immunogold labelling. Although specific transcript was detected for each pmp gene late in development, IF experiments with Pmp subtype-specific antibodies reveal that a number of inclusions in a single infection do not express Pmps of a given subtype. Coexpression experiments suggest that pmp genes are shut off independently from one another in non-expressing inclusions, i.e. different inclusions are switched off for different Pmps. Overall, these studies establish the existence of an efficient shutoff mechanism independently affecting the expression of each member of the pmp gene family in in vitro-grown C. trachomatis. Like other paralogous gene families of bacterial pathogens, the pmp gene family of C. trachomatis may serve the critical dual function of a highly adaptable virulence factor also providing antigenic diversity in the face of the host adaptive immune response.
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