Shared themes of antigenic variation and virulence in bacterial, protozoal, and fungal infections.
Pathogenic microbes have evolved highly sophisticated mechanisms for colonizing host tissues and evading or deflecting assault by the immune response. The ability of these microbes to avoid clearance prolongs infection, thereby promoting their long-term survival within individual hosts and, through transmission, between hosts. Many pathogens are capable of extensive antigenic changes in the face of the multiple constitutive and dynamic components of host immune defenses. As a result, highly diverse populations that have widely different virulence properties can arise from a single infecting organism (clone). In this review, we consider the molecular and genetic features of antigenic variation and corresponding host-parasite interactions of different pathogenic bacterial, fungal, and protozoan microorganisms. The host and microbial molecules involved in these interactions often determine the adhesive, invasive, and antigenic properties of the infecting organisms and can dramatically affect the virulence and pathobiology of individual infections. Pathogens capable of such antigenic variation exhibit mechanisms of rapid mutability in confined chromosomal regions containing specialized genes designated contingency genes. The mechanisms of hypermutability of contingency genes are common to a variety of bacterial and eukaryotic pathogens and include promoter alterations, reading-frame shifts, gene conversion events, genomic rearrangements, and point mutations.