The pathogenic gram-positive bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus) causes numerous diseases of cutaneous tissue, each of which is initiated after the interaction of the bacterium with the cells of the epidermis. In this study, we show that different surface proteins of S. pyogenes play important roles in determining the cell-specific tropism of the bacterium in skin. Using streptococcal strains with defined mutations in the genes which encode surface proteins in combination with primary cultures of human skin and an in situ adherence assay which uses histological sections of human skin, we show that the M protein of S. pyogenes mediates the binding of the bacterium to keratinocytes, while a second streptococcal surface protein, protein F, directs the adherence of the organism to Langerhans' cells. Characterization of binding revealed that adherence was inhibited by purified streptococcal proteins and pretreatment of both host cells with the protease trypsin. Adherence was only slightly affected by the state of keratinocyte differentiation in vitro, but was considerably modulated in response to environmental conditions known to regulate expression of M protein and protein F, suggesting that the interaction between these bacterial cell-surface structures/adhesins and keratinocytes and Langerhans' cells may play an important role in streptococcal skin disease.