The PilE protein is the major component of the Neisseria meningitidis pilus, which is encoded by the pilE/pilS locus that includes an expressed gene and eight homologous silent fragments. The silent gene fragments have been shown to recombine through gene conversion with the expressed gene and thereby provide a means by which novel antigenic variants of the PilE protein can be generated. We have analyzed the evolutionary rate of the pilE gene using the nucleotide sequence of two complete pilE/pilS loci. The very high rate of evolution displayed by the PilE protein appears driven by both recombination and positive selection. Within the semivariable region of the pilE and pilS genes, recombination appears to occur within multiple small sequence blocks that lie between conserved sequence elements. Within the hypervariable region, positive selection was identified from comparison of the silent and expressed genes. The unusual gene conversion mechanism that operates at the pilE/pilS locus is a strategy employed by N. meningitidis to enhance mutation of certain regions of the PilE protein. The silent copies of the gene effectively allow "parallelized" evolution of pilE, thus enabling the encoded protein to rapidly explore a large area of sequence space in an effort to find novel antigenic variants.
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