Going for baroque at the Escherichia coli K1 cell surface

Michael R. King, Susan M. Steenbergen, Eric R. Vimr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Phase variation is usually thought of as the stochastic switching between alternatively expressed ('on') and unexpressed ('off') phenotypic states. However, coupling synthesis of a monotonous homopolysaccharide to a mechanism of random but incomplete chemical modification produces almost infinite structural variation. Potentially limitless variability implies that evolution can produce highly ornate or extravagant flourishes reminiscent of the baroque style. Here, we describe an analysis of capsular polysialic acid form variation in Escherichia coli K1, demonstrating that the large number of variant structures is controlled by a single contingency locus. The mechanism for generating maximum structural diversity from maximal genetic parsimony is conferred by a simple translational switch carried on a K1-specific prophage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)196-202
Number of pages7
JournalTrends in Microbiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Virology


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