The molecular population genetics and pathogenic potential of North American and European invasive strains of Streptococcus pyogenes were assessed. Isolates from recent invasive infections and from infections in the 1920s and 1930s were characterized for multilocus enzyme genotype and allelic variation in the gene (speA) that encodes streptococcal pyrogenic exotoxin (SPE) A (scarlet fever toxin). A subset of strains was studied for allelic variation in genes that encode SPE B and streptokinase. All contemporary strains assigned to electrophoretic types (ETs) 1 and 2 that synthesize SPE A have the speA2 and speA3 allelic variants, respectively, and their relative virulence in two mouse models is similar to that of strains of the same ET and M protein types recovered earlier. In contrast, ET 1 and 2 isolates from disease episodes in the 1920s and 1930s contain the speA1 allele. The data suggest there may be temporal and geographic variation in the occurrence of clone--virulence factor allele combinations, an observation that may in part explain fluctuations in disease frequency, severity, and character.