Streptococcus pyogenes (group A Streptococcus) has reemerged in recent years as a cause of severe human disease. Because extracellular products are involved in streptococcal pathogenesis, we explored the possibility that a disease isolate expresses an uncharacterized superantigen. We screened culture supernatants for superantigen activity with a major histocompatibility complex class II-dependent T cell proliferation assay. Initial fractionation with red dye A chromatography indicated production of a class II-dependent T cell mitogen by a toxic shock-like syndrome (TSLS) strain. The amino terminus of the purified streptococcal superantigen was more homologous to the amino termini of staphylococcal enterotoxins B, C1, and C3 (SEB, SEC1, and SEC3), than to those of pyrogenic exotoxins A, B, C or other streptococcal toxins. The molecule, designated SSA, had the same pattern of class II isotype usage as SEB in T cell proliferation assays. However, it differed in its pattern of human T cell activation, as measured by quantitative polymerase chain reaction with Vβ-specific primers. SSA activated human T cells that express Vβ1, 3, 15 with a minor increase of Vβ5.2-bearing cells, whereas SEB activated Vβ3,12, 15, and 17-bearing T cells. Immunoblot analysis of 75 disease isolates from several localities detected SSA production only in group A streptococci, and found that SSA is apparently confined to only three clonal lineages as defined by multilocus enzyme electrophoresis typing. Isolates of one of these lineages, (electrophoretic type 2) are strongly associated with TSLS. The data identify SSA as a novel streptococcal superantigen that appears to be more related structurally to staphylococcal enterotoxins than to streptococcal exotoxins. Because abundant SSA production is apparently confined to only three streptococcal clonal lineages, the data also suggest that the SSA gene has only recently been acquired by S. pyogenes.