A striking increase in the frequency and severity of invasive infections caused by Streptococcus pyogenes has occurred in recent years. Among these diseases is streptococcal toxic-shock-like syndrome (TSLS), a condition characterized by fulminant soft-tissue destruction and multiorgan failure. Streptococcal superantigen (SSA), a superantigen isolated from a TSLS- inducing, serotype M3 S. pyogenes strain, has recently been identified. We here describe the cloning, sequencing, and phylogenetic distribution of the SSA structural gene. The 783-bp open reading frame encodes a predicted 260- amino-acid protein that is similar in size to several other bacterial superantigens. The deduced sequence of the mature protein is 60.2% identical to that of staphylococcal enterotoxin B but only 49% identical to that of streptococcal pyrogenic exotoxin A. Southern blot and PCR analysis of 138 group A streptococcal strains representing 65 M protein serotypes and 15 nontypeable isolates, identified ssa in 68 strains from 10 distinct clonal lineages. All ssa-positive clones expressed SSA. Of the two clones associated with TSLS, the ET 2-M3 lineage, but not the ET 1-M1 lineage, carried the SSA gene. Further analysis of the ET 2-M3 lineage found evidence for temporal variation in ssa association. Contemporary ET 2-M3 disease isolates had ssa, but two older isolates of this clone recovered in 1910 and 1920 lacked the gene. The clonal and temporal distribution patterns of ssa suggest a relatively recent acquisition of this superantigen-encoding gene by the ET 2- M3 lineage, perhaps by horizontal transfer and recombination.