The complete amino acid sequence of pilin from gonococcal strain MS11 and the sequence of constant and variable regions from strain R10 pilin have been determined in order to elucidate the structural basis for adherence function, antigenic diversity, and polymeric structure. The MS11 pilin sequence consists of 159 amino acids in a single polypeptide chain with two cysteines in disulfide linkage and serine-bonded phosphate residues. TC-2 (31-111), a soluble monomeric pilus peptide prepared by arginine-specific digestion, bound human endocervical, but not buccal or HeLa cells and therefore is postulated to encompass the receptor binding domain. Variable regions of CNBr-3 appear to confer antigenic diversity and comprise segments in which changes in the position of charged residues occur in hydrophilic, beta-turns. Residues 2-21 and 202-221 of gonococcal pilins and lower eucaryotic actins, respectively, exhibit 50% homology. When these residues are arranged at intervals of 100 degrees of arc on "helical wheels," the identical amino acids comprise a hydrophobic face on one side of the helix. This observation, the hydrophobic character of this region and the tendency for TC-1 (residues 1-30) to aggregate in water, suggest that this stretch interacts with other subunits to stabilize polymeric structure.