Regulation of chain length is essential to the proper functioning of prokaryotic and eukaryotic polysaccharides. Modulation of polymer size by substrate concentration is an attractive but unexplored control mechanism that has been suggested for many polysaccharides. The Streptococcus pneumoniae capsular polysaccharide is essential for virulence, and regulation of its size is critical for survival in different host environments. Synthesis of the type 3 capsule [-4)-β-d-Glc-(1-3)-β-d-GlcUA-(1-] from UDP-glucose (UDP-Glc) and UDP-glucuronic acid (UDP-GlcUA) is catalysed by the type 3 synthase, a processive β-glycosyltransferase, and requires a UDP-Glc dehydrogenase for conversion of UDP-Glc to UDP-GlcUA. Strains containing mutant UDP-Glc dehydrogenases exhibited reduced levels of UDP-GlcUA, along with reductions in total capsule amount and polymer chain length. In both the parent and mutant strains, UDP-Glc levels far exceeded UDP-GlcUA levels, which were very low to undetectable in the absence of blocking synthase activity. The in vivo observations were consistent with in vitro conditions that effect chain termination and ejection of the polysaccharide from the synthase when one substrate is limiting. These data are the first to demonstrate modulation of polysaccharide chain length by substrate concentration and to enable a model for the underlying mechanism. Further, they may have implications for the control of chain length in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic polymers synthesized by similar mechanisms. © 2006 The Authors.