The presence of M antigens on group A streptococci is associated with hairlike fimbriae that cover the surface of the streptococcal cell wall and are demonstrable by electron microscopy. These fimbriae also may be associated with R antigen. Like M protein, the surface fimbriae are destroyed by trypsin treatment and reappear when "trypsinized" streptococci are reincubated in fresh, trypsin-free broth.
Ferritin-conjugated, type-specific antibodies localize on homologous M+ cells in a pattern suggestive of several M antigenic sites along the length of individual surface fimbria. The M-associated fimbriae remain on the residual cell wall after removal of the bulk of group-specific polysaccharide through nitrous acid extraction. This suggests attachment of the fimbriae to the mucopeptide and minor polysaccharide components remaining in the nitrous acid-extracted wall.
The pattern of localization of ferritin-conjugated antibodies on homologous streptococci before and after trypsin exposure and upon reincubation of the trypsinized cells in fresh medium suggests the following hypothesis: M antigen is secreted by the cell, is partially excreted through the otherwise intact cell wall, and is bound by the wall so that M protein occupies a peripheral, exposed position on the surfaces of the streptococcal cell wall.