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As a first step in formulating an improved plague vaccine, we developed a simple purification strategy that produced high yields of pure cell-associated and culture supernatant-derived fraction 1 capsular antigen (F1) from both avirulent Yersinia pestis C092 (Pgm- Lcr-) and an Escherichia coli F1-producing recombinant strain. Cell-associated F1 was partially purified by sequential ammonium sulfate precipitations of a sodium chloride extract of acetone-dried bacteria harvested from broth cultures. Cell-free F1 was precipitated directly from culture supernatants with a single application of 30% ammonium sulfate. By exploiting the aggregative property of F1, large quantities of purified high-molecular-weight F1 species from both cell extracts and supernatants were isolated in the void volume of a preparative gel filtration column. Highly purified, endotoxin-free F1, combined with two different adjuvants, induced very high F1 titers in mice and protected them against either subcutaneous (70 to 100% survival) or aerosol (65 to 84% survival) challenge with virulent organisms. This protection was independent of the source of the antigen and the adjuvant used. F1-induced protection against both subcutaneous and aerosol challenge was also significantly better than that conferred by immunization with the licensed killed whole-cell vaccine. Our results indicate that F1 antigen represents a major protective component of previously studied crude capsule preparations, and immunity to F1 antigen provides a primary means for the host to overcome plague infection by either the subcutaneous or respiratory route.