It has been suggested that entry of pathogenic bacteria, including streptococci, into epithelial cells may represent an early stage of invasive infections. We found that poorly encapsulated wild-type strains and unencapsulated mutants of group A Streptococcus entered cultured human keratinocytes with high efficiency, while strains that produced large amounts of hyaluronic acid capsule did not, regardless of M-protein type or clinical source of the isolate. However, encapsulated streptococci produced extensive local necrosis and systemic infection in a mouse model of skin infection, while an isogenic acapsular strain did not. The results implicate the hyaluronic acid capsule as a virulence factor in soft tissue infection. Entry of poorly encapsulated group A Streptococcus into human epithelial cells does not appear to represent an initial step in invasive disease; rather, the capacity of encapsulated strains to avoid uptake by epithelial cells is associated with enhanced virulence in skin and soft tissue infection.
H M Schrager, J G Rheinwald, M R Wessels