Capsular polysaccharides of serogroup C, W-135 and Y meningococci were previously reported to be O-acetylated at the sialic acid residues. There is evidence that O-acetylation affects the immunogenicity of polysaccharide vaccines. We identified genes indispensable for O-acetylation of serogroup C, W-135 and Y meningococci downstream of the capsule synthesis genes siaA-D. The genes were co-transcribed with the sia operon as shown by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction analysis. The putative capsular polysaccharide O-acetyltransferases were designated OatC and OatWY. The protein OatWY of serogroups W-135 and Y showed sequence homologies to members of the NodL-LacA-CysE family of bacterial acetyltransferases, whereas no sequence homology with any known protein in the different databases was found for the serogroup C protein OatC. In serogroup W-135 and Y meningococci, several clonal lineages either lacked OatWY or OatWY was inactivated by insertion of IS1301. For serogroup C meningococci, we observed in vitro phase variation of O-acetylation, which resulted from slipped-strand mispairing in homopolymeric tracts. This finding explains the observation of naturally occurring de-O-acetylated serogroup C meningococci. Our report is the first description of sequences of sialic acid O-acetyltransferase genes that have not been cloned from either other bacterial or mammalian organisms.