ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: All Shigella flexneri serotypes except serotype 6 share a common O-antigen tetrasaccharide backbone and nearly all variation between serotypes are due to glucosyl and/or O-acetyl modifications of the common O units mediated by glycosyltransferases encoded by serotype-converting bacteriophages. Several S. flexneri serotype-converting phages including SfV, SfX, Sf6 and SfII have been isolated and characterized. However, S. flexneri serotype-converting phage SfI which encodes a type I modification of serotype 1 (1a, 1b, 1c and 1d) had not yet been characterized. RESULTS: The SfI phage was induced and purified from a S. flexneri serotype 1a clinical strain 019. Electron microscopy showed that the SfI phage has a hexagonal head and a long contractile tail, characteristic of the members of Myoviridae family. SfI can convert serotype Y to serotype 1a and serotype X to serotype 1d, but cannot convert 10 other S. flexneri serotypes (1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, Xv) tested, suggesting that SfI has a narrow host range. Similar to other S. flexneri serotype-converting phages, SfI integrates into the tRNA-thrW gene adjacent to proA of the host chromosome when lysogenized. The complete sequence of the SfI genome was 38,389 bp, encoding 66 open reading frames and two tRNA genes. Phage SfI shares significant homology with S. flexneri phage SfV, Escherichia coli prophage e14 and lambda, and is classified into the lambdoid phage family. SfI was found to use a cos mechanism for DNA packaging similar to that of phage SfV. CONCLUSIONS: SfI contains features of lambdoid phages and is closely related to S. flexneri phage SfV, E. coli prophage e14 and lambda. The characterization of SfI enhances our understanding of serotype conversion of S. flexneri.