Group A streptococcus (GAS), the causative agent of pharyngitis and necrotizing fasciitis, secretes the potent cysteine protease SpeB. Several lines of evidence suggest that SpeB is an important virulence factor. SpeB is expressed in human infections, protects mice from lethal challenge when used as a vaccine, and contributes significantly to tissue destruction and dissemination in animal models. However, recent descriptions of mutations in genes implicated in SpeB production have led to the idea that GAS may be under selective pressure to decrease secreted SpeB protease activity during infection. Thus, two divergent hypotheses have been proposed. One postulates that SpeB is a key contributor to pathogenesis; the other, that GAS is under selection to decrease SpeB during infection. In order to distinguish between these alternative hypotheses, we performed casein hydrolysis assays to measure the SpeB protease activity secreted by 6,775 GAS strains recovered from infected humans. The results demonstrated that 84.3% of the strains have a wild-type SpeB protease phenotype. The availability of whole-genome sequence data allowed us to determine the relative frequencies of mutations in genes implicated in SpeB production. The most abundantly mutated genes were direct transcription regulators. We also sequenced the genomes of 2,954 GAS isolates recovered from nonhuman primates with experimental necrotizing fasciitis. No mutations that would result in a SpeB-deficient phenotype were identified. Taken together, these data unambiguously demonstrate that the great majority of GAS strains recovered from infected humans secrete wild-type levels of SpeB protease activity. Our data confirm the important role of SpeB in GAS pathogenesis and help end a long-standing controversy.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Infectious Diseases