Strains of emm89 Streptococcus pyogenes have become one of the major causes of invasive infections worldwide in the last 10 years. We recently sequenced the genome of 1,125 emm89 strains and identified three major phylogenetic groups, designated clade 1, clade 2, and the epidemic clade 3. Epidemic clade 3 strains, which now cause the great majority of infections, have two distinct genetic features compared to clade 1 and clade 2 strains. First, all clade 3 organisms have a variant 3 nga promoter region pattern, which is associated with increased production of secreted cytolytic toxins SPN (S. pyogenes NADase) and SLO (streptolysin O). Second, all clade 3 strains lack the hasABC locus mediating hyaluronic acid capsule synthesis, whereas this locus is intact in clade 1 and clade 2 strains. We constructed isogenic mutant strains that produce different levels of SPN and SLO toxins and capsule (none, low, or high). Here we report that emm89 strains with elevated toxin production are significantly more virulent than low-toxin producers. Importantly, we also show that capsule production is dispensable for virulence in strains that already produce high levels of SPN and SLO. Our results provide new understanding about the molecular mechanisms contributing to the rapid emergence and molecular pathogenesis of epidemic clade 3 emm89 S. pyogenes.
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