Candida albicans strains with a deletion of the mitogen-activated protein kinase CEK1 gene are defective in the yeast to hyphal transition on solid surfaces in vitro. The virulence of a cek1 delta/cek1 delta null mutant strain was compared with its wild-type parent strain (WT) in a novel model of localized candidiasis. The mammary glands of lactating mice (at day 5 postpartum) were infected for 2, 4 and 6 days with 50 microliter suspension containing 1 x 10(5), 1 x 10(6) and 1 x 10(7) blastopores before death. Infected and non-infected control glands were evaluated pathologically. All animals infected with cek1 delta/cek1 delta null mutant strains showed no lesions while 65% of animals infected with the WT strain had severe lesions characterized by widespread heterophilic infiltration, necrosis, and abscess formation. As an additional control, animals infected with the disrupted strain complemented with the WT CEK1, on a replicating plasmid, also showed severe pathological changes similar to the WT strain. These results clearly demonstrate that the CEK1 gene codes for a virulence determinant of C. albicans and that the mouse mastitis model is well suited for the discriminative study of the pathogenicity of different C. albicans strains.