Virulent strains of Rhodococcus equi produce plasmid-mediated 15- and 17-kDa proteins, which are thermoregulated and apparently surface-expressed. We demonstrated by sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) that R. equi produce three antigenically-related virulence-associated proteins, a diffuse 18-22-kDa, a 17.5-kDa and a 15-kDa protein. Phase partitioning of whole cells of R. equi strain 103 with Triton X-114 (TX-114) and labelling with [3H]-labelled palmitic acid showed that the two higher molecular weight proteins are hydrophobic and lipid modified. The 15-kDa protein did not partition into TX-114 and was not lipid modified. Cloning and expression of a fragment of the R. equi virulence plasmid in Escherichia coli showed that the three proteins were expressed from a single gene. Sequence analysis of this gene (designated vapA) revealed a 570-bp open reading frame encoding a polypeptide of 189 amino acids with a calculated molecular mass of 19,175 Da. The mature, nonlipid modified protein had a calculated mass of 16,246 Da. The 17.5- and 18-22-kDa forms of the protein are therefore due to lipid modification. No significant sequence homology of the vapA gene with other reported nucleotide sequences were found. Opsonization of virulent R. equi with an IgG1 mouse monoclonal antibody (MAb103) to the VapA protein significantly enhanced uptake in the murine macrophage cell line IC-21. Intraperitoneal injection of mice with Mab103 enhanced initial clearance from the liver of mice challenged intravenously with R. equi. Immunization of mice with the lipid-modified VapA purified by SDS-PAGE fractionation or with acetone precipitated VapA protein following TX-114 extraction resulted in significantly enhanced clearance from the liver and spleen following intravenous challenge. The VapA protein of R. equi appears therefore to be a protective immunogen.