Streptococcus pyogenes (also known as group A Streptococcus, GAS), the agent of streptococcal sore throat and invasive soft-tissue infections, attaches to human pharyngeal or skin epithelial cells through specific recognition of its hyaluronic acid capsular polysaccharide by the hyaluronic-acid-binding protein CD44 (refs 1, 2). Because ligation of CD44 by hyaluronic acid can induce epithelial cell movement on extracellular matrix, we investigated whether molecular mimicry by the GAS hyaluronic acid capsule might induce similar cellular responses. Here we show that CD44-dependent GAS binding to polarized monolayers of human keratinocytes induced marked cytoskeletal rearrangements manifested by membrane ruffling and disruption of intercellular junctions. Transduction of the signal induced by GAS binding to CD44 on the keratinocyte surface involved Rac1 and the cytoskeleton linker protein ezrin, as well as tyrosine phosphorylation of cellular proteins. Studies of bacterial translocation in two models of human skin indicated that cell signalling triggered by interaction of the GAS capsule with CD44 opened intercellular junctions and promoted tissue penetration by GAS through a paracellular route. These results support a model of host cytoskeleton manipulation and tissue invasion by an extracellular bacterial pathogen.