Group A streptococci which grew in long chains in the presence of homologous anti-M antibody were split into their original length by the addition of an excess of homologous M protein to the culture. The chain-splitting reaction showed temperature and pH optima (37°C., 7.5) and was completely inhibited at 0°C. or by heat-killing the long chains at 56°C. prior to the addition of M protein. Addition of sublethal doses of HgCl2, or of penicillin, inhibited the chain-splitting reaction. Pneumococci behaved in entirely comparable fashion to streptococci in similar experiments.
Virulent strains of streptococci formed the shortest chains when broth media was enriched with serum. The chain-shortening effect of serum enrichment of the media was most apparent with encapsulated strains and under cultural conditions that favored capsule formation. Loss of capsules by mutation or by unfavorable growth conditions resulted in increase in chain length. The activity of the chain-splitting mechanism seemed to be independent of M protein, however, since encapsulated M-negative variants also formed very short chain in serum-enriched media. The physical presence of the capsule was not essential for chain shortening since enzymatic removal of the capsule with hyaluronidase during growth did not affect chain length.
These results strongly suggest that chain-splitting of streptococci and pneumococci occurs by an active metabolic mechanism, presumably enzymatic, which is inhibited by the union of surface antigens with specific antibody.