Discovery and characterization of de novo sialic acid biosynthesis in the phylum Fusobacterium

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Sialic acids are nine-carbon backbone carbohydrates found in prominent outermost positions of glycosylated molecules in mammals. Mimicry of sialic acid (N-acetylneuraminic acid, Neu5Ac) enables some pathogenic bacteria to evade host defenses. Fusobacterium nucleatum is a ubiquitous oral bacterium also linked with invasive infections throughout the body. We employed multidisciplinary approaches to test predictions that F. nucleatum engages in de novo synthesis of sialic acids. Here we show that F. nucleatum sbsp. polymorphum ATCC10953 NeuB (putative Neu5Ac synthase) restores Neu5Ac synthesis to an Escherichia coli neuB mutant. Moreover, purified F. nucleatum NeuB participated in synthesis of Neu5Ac from N-acetylmannosamine and phosphoenolpyruvate in vitro. Further studies support the interpretation that F. nucleatum ATCC10953 NeuA encodes a functional CMP-sialic acid synthetase and suggest that it may also contain a C-terminal sialic acid O-acetylesterase. We also performed BLAST queries of F. nucleatum genomes, revealing that only 4/31 strains encode a complete pathway for de novo Neu5Ac synthesis. Biochemical studies including mass spectrometry were consistent with the bioinformatic predictions, showing that F. nucleatum ATCC10953 synthesizes high levels of Neu5Ac, whereas ATCC23726 and ATCC25586 do not express detectable levels above background. While there are a number of examples of sialic acid mimicry in other phyla, these experiments provide the first biochemical and genetic evidence that a member of the phylum Fusobacterium can engage in de novo Neu5Ac synthesis.

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