agr is a global regulator of staphylococcal virulence and other accessory gene functions, especially including the haemolysins. Lack of haemolysin production therefore generally represents a defect in agr function. An example of this is Staphylococcus aureus strain RN4220, a widely used laboratory strain that carries a nitrosoguanidine (MNNG)-induced mutation enabling it to accept DNA from Escherichia coli and other bacteria. We show here that the non-haemolytic phenotype of RN4220 is caused by an extra A residue in a run of seven As at the 3′ end of agrA (agrA-8A). This causes a frameshift that results in the addition of three amino acyl residues to the C-terminal end of the protein. The 8A mutation does not inactivate the agr locus, but rather delays agr activation by 2–3 h, which results in failure to translate α- and δ-haemolysins, and hence, in a non-haemolytic phenotype. This mutation turned out not to be an adventitious consequence of MNNG mutagenesis, but rather had arisen in RN450, the immediate parent of RN4220. RN450 had become haemolytically heterogeneous in storage, and its non-haemolytic variants had the 8A mutation. The same mutation was also identified in a clinical isolate in which a non-haemolytic variant had arisen during the course of infection. Haemolytic activity in the mutant laboratory strains could be restored by the addition of auto-inducing peptide (AIP) early in growth, indicating that delayed production of RNAIII is responsible for the failure to translate α- and δ-haemolysins. Discovery of the 8A mutation has revealed the basis of the dissociation between agr activity and the non-haemolytic phenotype of RN4220, and has solved the long-standing mystery of the variable non-haemolytic phenotype of its immediate parent, RN450. The occurrence of this mutation in a clinical isolate indicates that it is not simply a laboratory phenomenon, and may represent a naturally occurring mechanism for the modulation of agr activity.