The expression of type 1 fimbriae (pili) of Escherichia coli is turned on and off at the transcriptional level at a high frequency (10(-3) per cell per generation) in a process termed phase variation. Using Southern blot and DNA sequence analysis, we have detected a genomic rearrangement in the switch region immediately upstream of the fimbrial structural gene. This rearrangement involves an invertible 314-base-pair segment of DNA whose alternating orientation apparently results in the on-and-off activation of a promoter that determines the state of fimbrial expression.
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