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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Feb 13;104(7):2413-8. Epub 2007 Feb 6.

Phase-variable expression of a family of glycoproteins imparts a dynamic surface to a symbiont in its human intestinal ecosystem.

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  • 1Channing Laboratory, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, 181 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


The recent report of the synthesis of glycoproteins by the abundant intestinal symbionts Bacteroides showed that these organisms use a novel bacterial enzyme to decorate their surfaces with a sugar residue derived from their environment. As a first step in understanding the importance of these glycoproteins to the bacteria and to the bacterial-host symbiosis, we identified and characterized the abundant glycoproteins of Bacteroides distasonis (proposed reclassification as Parabacteroides distasonis) [Sakamoto M, Benno Y (2006) Int J Syst Evol Microbiol 56:1599-1605]. Using lectin-affinity purification followed by tandem mass spectrometry, we identified a family of at least nine glycoproteins, similar only to the S-layer glycoproteins of Tannerella forsythia. Analysis of one of these purified glycoproteins demonstrated that the glycan is primarily a polymer of xylose, a monosaccharide rarely found in bacterial glycans. Even more unexpected was the finding that seven of nine of the glycoprotein promoters undergo DNA inversion, a process that we show is active in their endogenous human environment. Using cross-species functional assays, we show that a single serine family site-specific recombinase globally mediates the inversions of these glycoprotein promoters. This regulatory mechanism is similar to that of the Bacteroides fragilis capsular polysaccharides and establishes DNA inversion as a general and ancient means of regulation of glycan-containing surface molecules of these important human intestinal symbionts.

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