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Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2004 Mar;68(1):132-53.

Diversity of microbial sialic acid metabolism.

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Laboratory of Sialobiology and Microbial Metabolomics, Department of Pathobiology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois 61802, USA.


Sialic acids are structurally unique nine-carbon keto sugars occupying the interface between the host and commensal or pathogenic microorganisms. An important function of host sialic acid is to regulate innate immunity, and microbes have evolved various strategies for subverting this process by decorating their surfaces with sialylated oligosaccharides that mimic those of the host. These subversive strategies include a de novo synthetic pathway and at least two truncated pathways that depend on scavenging host-derived intermediates. A fourth strategy involves modification of sialidases so that instead of transferring sialic acid to water (hydrolysis), a second active site is created for binding alternative acceptors. Sialic acids also are excellent sources of carbon, nitrogen, energy, and precursors of cell wall biosynthesis. The catabolic strategies for exploiting host sialic acids as nutritional sources are as diverse as the biosynthetic mechanisms, including examples of horizontal gene transfer and multiple transport systems. Finally, as compounds coating the surfaces of virtually every vertebrate cell, sialic acids provide information about the host environment that, at least in Escherichia coli, is interpreted by the global regulator encoded by nanR. In addition to regulating the catabolism of sialic acids through the nan operon, NanR controls at least two other operons of unknown function and appears to participate in the regulation of type 1 fimbrial phase variation. Sialic acid is, therefore, a host molecule to be copied (molecular mimicry), eaten (nutrition), and interpreted (cell signaling) by diverse metabolic machinery in all major groups of mammalian pathogens and commensals.

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