Based on a consideration of the histopathology of nonbullous impetigo that shows localization of Streptococcus pyogenes to highly differentiated, subcorneal keratinocytes, we hypothesized that adherence of an impetigo strain of S. pyogenes would be promoted by terminal differentiation of keratinocytes. An assay was developed in which S. pyogenes adhered via pilus-like projections from the cell wall to the surface of cultured human keratinocytes in a time- and inoculum-dependent manner suggestive of a receptor-mediated process. Terminal differentiation of keratinocytes was induced by increasing the calcium concentration in the growth medium, and was confirmed by morphologic analysis using electron microscopy. Adherence of S. pyogenes was three and fourfold greater to keratinocytes differentiated in 1.0 and 1.5 mM calcium, respectively, compared with undifferentiated keratinocytes in 0.15 mM calcium. The presence of calcium during the adherence assay further enhanced adherence nearly twofold. Adherence occurred preferentially to sites of contact between adjacent keratinocytes, suggesting that the keratinocyte receptor may be a molecule involved in cell-to-cell adhesion. In contrast, nonpathogenic Streptococcus gordonii adhered poorly to keratinocytes regardless of their state of terminal differentiation, and adherence of a pharyngeal strain of S. pyogenes was twofold greater to undifferentiated than differentiated keratinocytes. This is the first report of in vitro adherence of S. pyogenes to keratinocytes in a manner that emulates human impetigo. Adherence of only the impetigo strain, and not the pharyngeal strain of S. pyogenes or the nonpathogenic S. gorgonii isolate, was promoted by keratinocyte differentiation. This result provides a model system for investigating the molecular pathogenesis of streptococcal skin infections.
G L Darmstadt, P Fleckman, M Jonas, E Chi, C E Rubens