The (alpha1-->6)-linked N-acetyl-D-mannosamine-1-phosphate meningococcal capsule of serogroup A Neisseria meningitidis is biochemically distinct from the sialic acid-containing capsules produced by other disease-associated meningococcal serogroups (e.g., B, C, Y, and W-135). We defined the genetic cassette responsible for expression of the serogroup A capsule. The cassette comprised a 4,701-bp nucleotide sequence located between the outer membrane capsule transporter gene, ctrA, and galE, encoding the UDP-glucose-4-epimerase. Four open reading frames (ORFs) not found in the genomes of the other meningococcal serogroups were identified. The first serogroup A ORF was separated from ctrA by a 218-bp intergenic region. Reverse transcriptase (RT) PCR and primer extension studies of serogroup A mRNA showed that all four ORFs were cotranscribed in the opposite orientation to ctrA and that transcription of the ORFs was initiated from the intergenic region by a sigma-70-type promoter that overlapped the ctrA promoter. The first ORF exhibited 58% amino acid identity with the UDP-N-acetyl-D-glucosamine (UDP-GlcNAc) 2-epimerase of Escherichia coli, which is responsible for the conversion of UDP-GlcNAc into UDP-N-acetyl-D-mannosamine. Polar or nonpolar mutagenesis of each of the ORFs resulted in an abrogation of serogroup A capsule production as determined by colony immunoblots and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Replacement of the serogroup A biosynthetic gene cassette with a serogroup B cassette by transformation resulted in capsule switching from a serogroup A capsule to a serogroup B capsule. These data indicate that assembly of the serogroup A capsule likely begins with monomeric UDP-GlcNAc and requires proteins encoded by three other genes found in the serogroup A N. meningitidis-specific operon located between ctrA and galE.