Neisseria gonorrhoeae: disease, pathogenesis and laboratory diagnosis

Neisseria is the only pathogenic gram negative cocci (precisely diplococci). Two species of Neisseria causes disease in humans; Neisseria meningitidis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Neisseria gonorrhoeae (often called gonococcus) causes gonorrhoea, the second most common sexually transmitted disease (STDs) of worldwide importance (Chlamydial infections are more common). It causes disease only in humans.


  1. Gram Negative cocci, usually seen in pairs (diplococci) with the adjacent sides flattened (typically kidney shaped); (Looks like 2 coffee beans kissing).
  2. In urethral discharge it is predominately found within the polymorphs.
Neisseria gonorrhoeae (Gram negative diplococci)
Neisseria gonorrhoeae (Gram negative diplococci)
  • Sensitive to dehydration and cold conditions.
  • Gonococci do not contain capsules (Meningococci does).

Mode of transmission

  1. Neonates acquired Neisseria gonorrhoeae from mother during passage through the birth canal. In newborn infants, Neisseria gonorrhoeae causes Ophthalmia neonatorum (purulent conjunctivitis).
  2. Sexual transmission: Acquired during unprotected sex with infected partner.

Virulence factors expressed by Neisseria gonorrhoeae

  1. Pili: Pili mediate attachment to mucosal cell surfaces and also are antiphagocytic. Piliated gonococci are usually virulent, whereas nonpiliated strains are avirulent.
  2. Lipooligosaccharides (LOS)
  3. Outer membrane proteins and Opa proteins eg. Porin A: Mediates invasion of the epithelial cells.
  4. IgA protease: It hydrolyze secretory IgA, which could otherwise block attachment to the mucosa.

Host defense against Neisseria gonorrhoeae

  1. Antibodies (Mainly IgA and IgG)
  2. Complement
  3. Neutrophils

Disease caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae:

Gonococci causes both localized infections, usually in the genital tract, and disseminated infections.

  1. Gonorrhoea in men is characterized primarily by urethritis accompanied by dysuria and a purulent discharge. Epididymitis can occur.
  2. In women, infection is located primarily in the endocervix, causing a purulent vaginal discharge and intermenustrual bleeding (cervicitis). The most frequent complication in women is an ascending infection of the uterine tubes (salphingitis, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease), which can result in sterility or ectopic pregnancy as a result of scarring of tissues.

    Opthalmia neonatorum
    Opthalmia neonatorum
  3. In newly born children: Ophthalmia neonatorum (An eye infection which may develop within 2/3 days of vaginal delivery, affects cornea and can cause blindness)

Disseminated gonococcal infections occurs via the blood stream. Gonococcal strains causing disseminated infections are usually resistant to serum and complement. Disseminated infections commonly manifest as septic arthritis, tenosynovitis, pustules in the skin, endocarditis, and meningitis.

Laboratory diagnosis of Gonorrhoea

Algorithm for culture and identification of Neisseria gonorrhoeae
Algorithm for culture and identification of Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Sample: Urethral/Cervical/Vaginal discharge

  • To obtain a urethral specimen swab ( cotton or rayon swab) is inserted approximately 2cm in urethra and rotated gently before withdrawing.
  • If there is profuse urethral discharge in male, it can be collected without inserting the swab.
  • A few drops of first voided urine can be used in males, but the sensitivity is low compared to discharge.

Transport: Swabs collected for isolation of gonococci may be transported to the laboratory in modified Staurt’s or Amie’s charcoal transport media and held at room temperature until inoculated to culture media. Good recovery of gonococci is possible if swabs are cultured within 12 hours of collection.

Gram Staining 

neisseria gonorrhoea on MNC
Neisseria gonorrhoeae in New York City Agar (LCAT).

For men, a gram-stained smear of urethral discharge (exudate) showing intracellular Gram-negative diplococci is diagnostic. But as women may carry normal vaginal flora such as Veillonella or occasional gram-negative coccobacilli , may resemble gonococci, same results in case of women may not be diagnostic so culture and identification process is needed, which is a confirmatory test.


Modified Thayer Martin Medium {Chocolate agar containing antibiotics (vancomycin, colistin, trimethoprim, and nystatin)} is most often used.  Modified Newyork City Medium (MNC)  is also used for the culture of Neisseria gonorrhoeae. MNC also supports the growth of Mycoplasma.

Biochemical tests for Neisseria gonorrhoeae identification

  1. Oxidase Test: Positive
  2. Ferments glucose but not maltose, sucrose or lactose
  3. DNase Test: Negative
  4. Beta-galactosidase (ONPG) Test: Negative
  5. Glutamyl-aminopeptidase (GAP) Test: Negative

Serology: Serological tests to determine the presence of antibody to gonococci are not useful for diagnosis.

Molecular Diagnosis: Presence of gonococcal nucleic acids in patient specimens, using amplification or non-amplification method. These tests are highly sensitive and specific.

Further Resources:

Laboratory diagnosis of Neisseria gonorrhoeae in NCBI 

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