Discovery and characterization of sialic acid O-acetylation in group B Streptococcus
Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is the leading cause of human neonatal sepsis and meningitis. The GBS capsular polysaccharide is a major virulence factor and the active principle of vaccines in phase II trials. All GBS capsules have a terminal alpha2-3-linked sialic acid [N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac)], which interferes with complement-mediated killing. We show here that some of the Neu5Ac residues of the GBS type III capsule are O-acetylated at carbon position 7, 8, or 9, a major modification evidently missed in previous studies. Data are consistent with initial O-acetylation at position 7, and subsequent migration of the O-acetyl ester at positions 8 and 9. O-acetylation was also present on several other GBS serotypes (Ia, Ib, II, V, and VI). Deletion of the CMP-Neu5Ac synthase gene neuA by precise, in-frame allelic replacement gave intracellular accumulation of O-acetylated Neu5Ac, whereas overexpression markedly decreased O-acetylation. Given the known GBS Neu5Ac biosynthesis pathway, these data indicate that O-acetylation occurs on free Neu5Ac, competing with the CMP-Neu5Ac synthase. O-acetylation often generates immunogenic epitopes on bacterial capsular polysaccharides and can modulate human alternate pathway complement activation. Thus, our discovery has important implications for GBS pathogenicity, immunogenicity, and vaccine design.