There are 91 known capsular serotypes of Streptococcus pneumoniae. The nasopharyngeal carriage prevalence of particular serotypes is relatively stable worldwide, but the host and bacterial factors that maintain these patterns are poorly understood. Given the possibility of serotype replacement following vaccination against seven clinically important serotypes, it is increasingly important to understand these factors. We hypothesized that the biochemical structure of the capsular polysaccharides could influence the degree of encapsulation of different serotypes, their susceptibility to killing by neutrophils, and ultimately their success during nasopharyngeal carriage. We sought to measure biological differences among capsular serotypes that may account for epidemiological patterns. Using an in vitro assay with both isogenic capsule-switch variants and clinical carriage isolates, we found an association between increased carriage prevalence and resistance to non-opsonic neutrophil-mediated killing, and serotypes that were resistant to neutrophil-mediated killing tended to be more heavily encapsulated, as determined by FITC-dextran exclusion. Next, we identified a link between polysaccharide structure and carriage prevalence. Significantly, non-vaccine serotypes that have become common in vaccinated populations tend to be those with fewer carbons per repeat unit and low energy expended per repeat unit, suggesting a novel biological principle to explain patterns of serotype replacement. More prevalent serotypes are more heavily encapsulated and more resistant to neutrophil-mediated killing, and these phenotypes are associated with the structure of the capsular polysaccharide, suggesting a direct relationship between polysaccharide biochemistry and the success of a serotype during nasopharyngeal carriage and potentially providing a method for predicting serotype replacement.
Streptococcus pneumoniae, or pneumococcus, is an important pathogen worldwide and causes a wide range of diseases, mostly in young children and the elderly. There are 91 serotypes of pneumococcus, each of which produces a unique polysaccharide, called the capsule, that attaches to the bacterial surface and prevents it from being cleared by the host. The serotypes differ greatly in their prevalence in the human population. There is currently a vaccine, effective in infancy, which targets seven clinically important serotypes, but several types not covered by the vaccine are beginning to increase in carriage frequency. As a result, it is critical to understand why some serotypes are frequently carried in the human population while others are not. In this study, we find that the high-prevalence serotypes tend to be more heavily encapsulated and more resistant to killing by neutrophils. Significantly, we find that the biochemical properties of the different polysaccharides can be used to predict their carriage frequency both before and after introduction of the vaccine. These results provide a biologically plausible explanation for differences in prevalence between serotypes.