The cell envelope of mycobacteria, a group of Gram positive bacteria, is composed of a plasma membrane and a Gram-negative-like outer membrane containing mycolic acids. In addition, the surface of the mycobacteria is coated with an illcharacterized layer of extractable, non-covalently linked glycans, lipids and proteins, collectively known as the capsule, whose occurrence is a matter of debate. By using plunge freezing cryo-electron microscopy technique, we were able to show that pathogenic mycobacteria produce a thick capsule, only present when the cells were grown under unperturbed conditions and easily removed by mild detergents. This detergent-labile capsule layer contains arabinomannan, α-glucan and oligomannosyl-capped glycolipids. Further immunogenic and proteomic analyses revealed that Mycobacterium marinum capsule contains high amounts of proteins that are secreted via the ESX-1 pathway. Finally, cell infection experiments demonstrated the importance of the capsule for binding to cells and dampening of pro-inflammatory cytokine response. Together, these results show a direct visualization of the mycobacterial capsular layer as a labile structure that contains ESX-1-secreted proteins. © 2010 Sani et al.