To gain insight into the pathogenesis of tuberculosis, a molecular definition of the tubercle bacillus cell envelope, which is involved in the early stages of the infection, is required. The cell-surface-exposed material of the pathogen was isolated by mechanical means and chemically analysed. It was shown by scanning electron microscopy that the method used for extracting the surface-covering material preserves the integrity of the bacilli. Surprisingly, in view of the current opinion, only small amounts of lipids (1-6%) were present. Polysaccharides and proteins were the main components of the material. The polysaccharides were neutral and lipid-free D-glucan, D-arabino-D-mannan and D-mannan, which were eluted from gel-filtration columns in positions corresponding to molecular masses of 120, 13 and 4 kDa, respectively. Based on NMR spectroscopy and conventional chemical analyses, the major structural motifs of the purified polysaccharides were established as being identical to those of the polysaccharides we previously isolated from the culture filtrate of the tubercle bacillus. Immunocytochemical studies showed that these compounds were not only surface-located but were also present in the inner capsular compartment. The major protein constituents exhibited the same mobilities on SDS-PAGE as those of the culture filtrate on the tubercle bacillus and readily reacted with the monoclonal antibodies directed against these molecules. These proteins included the 19 and 38 kDa lipoproteins, the 30/31 kDa fibronectin-binding proteins and the 40 kDa L-alanine dehydrogenase. These findings suggest that the culture filtrate material represents part of the capsule which, in an in vivo context, could contribute to the electron transparent zone surrounding the tubercle bacillus. The 24 kDa (MPB/T64) protein was found to be a secreted protein, as it was detected almost exclusively in the culture filtrate. Taken together, the data give a new insight into the surface-exposed compounds of the tubercle bacillus and may explain part of the nature and limitation of the host immunity towards the pathogen.