We have previously reported methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus clinical strains, Mu50 and Mu3, representing two categories of vancomycin resistance: Mu50 representing vancomycin-resistant S. aureus (VRSA) with MICs > or = 8 mg/L, and Mu3 representing hetero-VRSA with MICs < or = 4 mg/L using standard MIC determination methods. The mechanisms of vancomycin resistance in these strains were investigated. These strains did not carry the enterococcal vancomycin-resistance genes, vanA, vanB, or vanC1-3, as tested by PCR using specific primers. However, both strains produced three to five times the amount of penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs) 2 and 2' when compared with vancomycin-susceptible S. aureus control strains with or without methicillin resistance; the amounts of PBP2 produced in Mu3 and Mu50 were comparable to those in the vancomycin-resistant S. aureus mutant strains selected in vitro. Incorporation of 14C-labelled Nacetyl-glucosamine into the cell was three to 20 times increased in Mu50 and Mu3, and release of the radioactive cell wall material was increased in Mu3 (and also in Mu50, though to a lesser extent), compared with control strains. The amounts of intracellular murein monomer precursor in these strains were three to eight times greater than those found in control strains. Transmission electron microscopy showed a doubling in the cell wall thickness in Mu50 compared with the control strains. Mu3 did not show obvious cell wall thickening. These data indicate that activated synthesis and an increased rate of cell wall turnover are common features of Mu3 and Mu50 and may be the prerequisite for the expression of vancomycin resistance in S. aureus.