The sensitivity of Helicobacter pylori chromosomal DNA to MboI digestion was investigated in 208 strains from several continents. Only 11 (5%) of strains were sensitive to MboI, and it was hypothesized that HpyIII, a type II restriction/modification enzyme with sequence homology to MboI, mediated the protection. This was confirmed by PCR analysis of the gene locus of hpyIII, normally composed of hpyIIIR and hpyIIIM. In all but one strain sensitive to MboI, no PCR product of hpyIIIR was obtained. In contrast, all strains yielded a product for hpyIIIM, independent of MboI phenotype. Further examination of the hpyIII locus in strains lacking a hpyIIIR PCR product identified a novel gene, hrgA, upstream of hpyIIIM. All 208 strains examined had either hpyIIIR or hrgA, but not both, upstream of hpyIIIM. Although hrgA has homology with a Campylobacter jejuni gene (Cj1602), its function is not known. In Western countries, hrgA was more prevalent (53%) than in Asia (25%; P < 0.0001, chi(2)). In Asia, hrgA was more prevalent among gastric cancer patients (18 of 43; 42%) than among noncancer patients (16 of 95; 17%; P = 0.001, chi(2)). All 143 Asian strains tested were cagA(+), but among Western strains, hrgA was more prevalent in cagA(+) strains (26 of 42; 62%) than in cagA(-) strains (9 of 23; 39%; P = 0.04, chi(2)). In coculture with epithelial cells, hpyIIIR and hrgA strains did not show any significant differences in interleukin-8 induction and apoptosis. Although a direct function for hrgA in virulence could not be demonstrated, our data indicate that hrgA is a strain-specific gene that might be associated with gastric cancer among H. pylori isolates from Asian patients.