The pharynx is the primary reservoir for strains of group A STREPTOCOCCUS: (GAS) associated both with pharyngitis (streptococcal sore throat) and with invasive or "flesh-eating" soft tissue infections. We now report that CD44, a hyaluronic acid-binding protein that mediates human cell-cell- and cell-extracellular matrix-binding interactions, functions as a receptor for GAS colonization of the pharynx in vivo. We found that attachment of GAS to murine epithelial keratinocytes was mediated by binding of the GAS hyaluronic acid capsular polysaccharide to CD44. In studies of transgenic mice with a selective defect in epithelial expression of CD44, GAS adherence to CD44-deficient keratinocytes in vitro was reduced compared with adherence to keratinocytes expressing normal levels of CD44. After intranasal inoculation, GAS colonized the oropharynx of wild-type mice but failed to colonize transgenic mice deficient in CD44 expression. GAS colonization of wild-type mice could be blocked by coadministration of mAb to CD44 or by pretreatment of the animals with exogenous hyaluronic acid. These results provide evidence that CD44 serves as a receptor for GAS colonization of the pharynx and support the potential efficacy of disrupting the interaction between the GAS hyaluronic acid capsule and CD44 as a novel approach to preventing pharyngeal infection.