Xer1-independent mechanisms of Vpma phase variation in Mycoplasma agalactiae are triggered by Vpma-specific antibodies

Stefan Czurda, Shivanand Manjunath Hegde, Renate Rosengarten, Rohini Chopra-Dewasthaly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Despite their small genomes mycoplasmas maintain large multigene families devoted to surface antigenic variation. Although implicated as important factors for mycoplasma pathogenicity and persistence, the role of these antigenic switches in host immune evasion has never been unequivocally proven in these minimalist microbes. Mycoplasma agalactiae exhibits antigenic variation due to Xer1-mediated site-specific DNA inversions of vpma genes encoding abundant multiple surface lipoproteins. To evaluate the biological significance of Vpma oscillations the xer1 recombinase gene has been disrupted in earlier studies to abolish Vpma switching and to generate stable phase-locked mutants (PLMs) steadily expressing a single Vpma product. However, in previous animal infection studies, surprisingly these PLMs switched to new different Vpma phenotypes. The aim of the current study was to demonstrate the influence of anti-Vpma antibodies on change of Vpma expression in PLMs as well as on the wildtype strain. In in vitro assays it is shown that wild type M. agalactiae escapes the negative effects of Vpma-specific antibodies by high-frequency Xer1-mediated switching to alternative Vpma phenoytpes. Even for Xer1-disrupted PLMs that stably expressed the same Vpma for several in vitro generations, the presence of the corresponding Vpma-specific antibody caused repression of the target Vpma and induction of new Vpma phenotypes by novel complex vpma rearrangements like intragenic deletions and gene chimeras. These Xer1-independent vpma recombinations correlated very well with similar PLM switches observed in vivo in an earlier independent study, clearly demonstrating that Vpma phase variation is necessary to express ‘Vpma immune evasion proteins’ in order to escape the immune response and to survive in the immunocompetent host. The data clearly demonstrate that although the Xer1 recombinase is the sole factor responsible for Vpma switching of wild type M. agalactiae in vitro, other alternative molecular switches operate in its absence under the selective pressure of the immune response. Furthermore, this evasion from the immune attack of the host involves complex vpma rearrangements, a causal relationship that was so far never demonstrated for M. agalactiae, thereby illustrating novel features of its regulation under immune pressure. The results are anticipated to have a direct impact on understanding the in vivo role of surface antigenic variation systems and the immune evasion tactics of other pathogenic mycoplasma species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)443-451
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Medical Microbiology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Anti-Vpma antibodies
  • Antigenic switch mechanisms
  • Immune escape variants
  • Immune evasion
  • Mycoplasma agalactiae
  • Phase-locked mutants
  • Site-specific Xer1 recombinase
  • Vpma phase variation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases


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