To gain access to tissues within the human host, Streptococcus pneumoniae initially colonizes the nasopharynx and then interacts with glycoconjugates on the surfaces of target cells at various sites of infection. Although pneumococcal adhesins are currently unknown, exported proteins on the bacterial surface are potential candidates. To identify bacterial elements involved in this process, mutants of S. pneumoniae with defects in exported proteins were screened for the inability to adhere to cells representative of three in vivo niches: (i) agglutination of bovine erythrocytes, which reflects adherence to cells which reside in the nasopharynx; (ii) human type II pneumocytes (lung cells [LC]), representing the alveolar site of infection; and (iii) human vascular endothelial cells (EC), representing the endovascular site. The capacity of the mutants to adhere during the course of pneumococcal disease was also assessed by using cytokine-activated LC and EC. All of the 30 mutants analyzed produced hemagglutination values comparable with those of the parent strain. Four independent mutants demonstrated a greater than 50% decrease in adherence to both LC and EC. Sequence analysis of the altered alleles from these strains showed that mutations had occurred in two previously identified loci, plpA and ami, which belong to the family of genes encoding protein-dependent peptide permeases. Mutations in the ami locus resulted in an inability to recognize the GalNAc beta 1-4Gal glycoconjugate receptor present on resting LC and EC, whereas mutations in plpA resulted in a failure to recognize a GalNAc beta 1-3Gal glycoconjugate receptor also present on resting cells. Mutations in neither allele affected recognition of GlcNAc receptors present on cytokine-activated LC and EC. These results suggest that peptide permeases modulate pneumococcal adherence to epithelial and endothelial cells either by acting directly as adhesins or by modulating the expression of adhesins on the pneumococcal surface during the initial stages of colonization of the lung or the vascular endothelium.