To understand the rates and mechanisms of Neisseria gonorrhoeae opa gene variation, the 11 opa genes were amplified independently so that an opa allelic profile could be defined for any isolate from the sequences at each locus. The opa allelic profiles from 14 unrelated isolates were all different, with no opa alleles shared between isolates. Examination of very closely related isolates from sexual contacts and sexual networks showed that these typically shared most opa alleles, and the mechanisms by which recent changes occurred at individual opa loci could be determined. The great majority of changes were due to recombination among existing alleles that duplicated an opa allele present at another locus or resulted in a mosaic of existing opa alleles. Single nucleotide changes or insertion/deletion of a single codon also occurred, but few of these events were assigned to mutation, the majority being assigned to localized recombination. Introduction of novel opa genes from coinfecting strains was rare, and all but one were observed in the same sexual network. Changes at opa loci occurred at a greater rate than those at the porin locus, and the opall locus changed more rapidly than other opa loci, almost always differing even between recent sexual contacts. Examination of the neighboring pilE gene showed that changes at opall and pilE often occurred together, although this linkage may not be a causal one.