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The obligately anaerobic bacterium Bacteroides fragilis, an opportunistic pathogen and inhabitant of the normal human colonic microbiota, exhibits considerable within-strain phase and antigenic variation of surface components. The complete genome sequence has revealed an unusual breadth (in number and in effect) of DNA inversion events that potentially control expression of many different components, including surface and secreted components, regulatory molecules, and restriction-modification proteins. Invertible promoters of two different types (12 group 1 and 11 group 2) were identified. One group has inversion crossover (fix) sites similar to the hix sites of Salmonella typhimurium. There are also four independent intergenic shufflons that potentially alter the expression and function of varied genes. The composition of the 10 different polysaccharide biosynthesis gene clusters identified (7 with associated invertible promoters) suggests a mechanism of synthesis similar to the O-antigen capsules of Escherichia coli.