The serogroups B, C, W135 and Y of Neisseria meningitidis express chemically and immunologically distinct capsular polysaccharides containing sialic acid. In the case of serogroup B meningococci sialic acid is synthesized by the gene products of a locus termed sia and forms the homopolymers of the capsule. The organization of the genes required for sialic acid synthesis in serogroups B, C, W135 and Y was elucidated by PCR technology. Cloning, sequencing and the functional expression of the polysialyltransferase (PST) genes of serogroups B and C demonstrated that the difference in capsule composition derives from the presence of related, but distinct siaD genes coding for PSTs. Analysis of meningococci of serogroups W135 and Y expressing sialic acid heteropolymers revealed that the DNA sequences of the corresponding genetic loci in these serogroups were highly homologous, but differed completely from the siaD genes of serogroups B and C. This finding suggests that enzymes unrelated to those of serogroups B and C are required for the formation of sialic acid heteropolymers characteristic of the capsules of serogroups W135 and Y.