Functional organization of the gene cluster involved in the synthesis of the pneumococcal capsule


  • Ernesto García Center for Biological Research, CSIC, Madrid, Spain
  • Daniel Llull Center for Biological Research, CSIC, Madrid, Spain
  • Rubens López Center for Biological Research, CSIC, Madrid, Spain


Streptococcus pneumoniae, Capsular polysaccharide, Virulence capsular switching, Natural transformation


Streptococcus pneumoniae is a major human pathogen and its capsular polysaccharide has been shown to be the main virulence factor. The molecular organization of the genes governing the formation of this capsule was not studied until the 1990s. The capsular clusters (cap) of eight of the 90 known pneumococcal types have now been studied. The cap operon, located between the dexB and aliA genes, is arranged as a central region comprising the genes coding for the specifictype polysaccharide, flanked by open reading frames that are mostly common to all of the serotypes. The biochemical functions of 24 genes required for capsular polysaccharide biosynthesis have been elucidated but the precise role of the flanking regions in capsular formation is unknown. The natural genetic transformation characteristic of pneumococci, the arrangement of the cap locus and the abundance of transposable elements at this locus favor the genetic variability of the capsule in this microorganism. These well-documented observations together with the finding that some genes located outside the cap cluster may also participate in capsule formation increase the complexity of pneumococcal infection control.






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