The tprK gene of Treponema pallidum subsp. pallidum, the causative agent of venereal syphilis, belongs to a 12-member gene family and encodes a protein with a predicted cleavable signal sequence and predicted transmembrane domains. Except for the Nichols type strain, all rabbit-propagated isolates of T. pallidum examined thus far are comprised of mixed populations of organisms with heterogeneous tprK sequences. We show that tprK sequences in treponemes obtained directly from syphilis patients are also heterogeneous. Clustering analysis demonstrates that primary chancre tprK sequences are more likely to cluster within a sample than among samples and that tighter clustering is seen within chancre samples than within rabbit-propagated isolates. Closer analysis of tprK sequences from a rabbit-propagated isolate reveals that individual variable regions have different levels of diversity, suggesting that variable regions may have different intrinsic rates of sequence change or may be under different levels of selection. Most variable regions show increased sequence diversity upon passage. We speculate that the diversification of tprK during infection allows organisms to evade the host immune response, contributing to reinfection and persistent infection
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