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The bacterial pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae (gonococcus) is able to colonize and penetrate the human mucosa, to avoid the host's defences and to persist in various anatomical niches. Molecular analyses of recovered gonococci suggest that bacterial survival during the course of an infection is accompanied by dramatic alterations in the bacterial phenotype, including the variable expression of pili, opacity outer membrane proteins and lipo-oligosaccharides. These findings have led to the hypothesis that gonococcal surface variations may reflect bacterial adaptations that are essential to establish infection. Recent insights into the molecular mechanisms behind the early events in gonococcal pathogenesis support the concept that phenotypic transitions direct bacterial attachment and entry into mucosal cells.