Innovations in host and microbial sialic acid biosynthesis revealed by phylogenomic prediction of nonulosonic acid structure

Amanda L. Lewis, Nolan Desa, Elizabeth E. Hansen, Yuriy A. Knirel, Jeffrey I. Gordon, Pascal Gagneux, Victor Nizet, Ajit Varki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

90 Scopus citations


Sialic acids (Sias) are nonulosonic acid (NulO) sugars prominently displayed on vertebrate cells and occasionally mimicked by bacterial pathogens using homologous biosynthetic pathways. It has been suggested that Sias were an animal innovation and later emerged in pathogens by convergent evolution or horizontal gene transfer. To better illuminate the evolutionary processes underlying the phenomenon of Sia molecular mimicry, we performed phylogenomic analyses of biosynthetic pathways for Sias and related higher sugars derived from 5,7-diamino-3,5,7,9-tetradeoxynon-2-ulosonic acids. Examination of ≈1,000 sequenced microbial genomes indicated that such biosynthetic pathways are far more widely distributed than previously realized. Phylogenetic analysis, validated by targeted biochemistry, was used to predict NulO types (i.e., neuraminic, legionaminic, or pseudaminic acids) expressed by various organisms. This approach uncovered previously unreported occurrences of Sia pathways in pathogenic and symbiotic bacteria and identified at least one instance in which a human archaeal symbiont tentatively reported to express Sias in fact expressed the related pseudaminic acid structure. Evaluation of targeted phylogenies and protein domain organization revealed that the "unique" Sia biosynthetic pathway of animals was instead a much more ancient innovation. Pathway phylogenies suggest that bacterial pathogens may have acquired Sia expression via adaptation of pathways for legionaminic acid biosynthesis, one of at least 3 evolutionary paths for de novo Sia synthesis. Together, these data indicate that some of the long-standing paradigms in Sia biology should be reconsidered in a wider evolutionary context of the extended family of NulO sugars.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13552-13557
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
StatePublished - Aug 11 2009


  • Biosynthetic pathway
  • Legionaminic acid
  • Neuraminic acid
  • Phylogeny
  • Pseudaminic acid

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