Several streptococcal strains had an uncharacterized mechanism of macrolide resistance that differed from those that had been reported previously in the literature. This novel mechanism conveyed resistance to 14- and 15-membered macrolides, but not to 16-membered macrolides, lincosamides or analogues of streptogramin B. The gene encoding this phenotype was cloned by standard methods from total genomic digests of Streptococcus pyogenes 02C1064 as a 4.7 kb heterologous insert into the low-copy vector, pACYC177, and expressed in several Escherichia coli K-12 strains. The location of the macrolide-resistance determinant was established by functional analysis of deletion derivatives and sequencing. A search for homologues in the genetic databases confirmed that the gene is a novel one with homology to membrane-associated pump proteins. The macrolide-resistance coding sequence was subcloned into a pET23a vector and expressed from the inducible T7 promoter on the plasmid in E. coli BL21(DE3). Physiological studies of the cloned determinant, which has been named mefA for macrolide efflux, provide evidence for its mechanism of action in host bacteria. E.coli strains containing the cloned determinant maintain lower levels of intracellular erythromycin when this compound is added to the external medium than isogenic clones without mefA. Furthermore, intracellular accumulation of [14C]-erythromycin in the original S. pyogenes strain was always lower than that observed in erythromycin-sensitive strains. This is consistent with a hypothesis that the gene encodes a novel antiporter function which pumps erythromycin out of the cell. The gene appears to be widely distributed in S. pyogenes strains, as demonstrated by primer-specific synthesis using the polymerase chain reaction.