Nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi) is a Gram-negative bacterial pathogen that is adapted exclusively to human hosts. NTHi utilizes sialic acid from the host as a carbon source and as a terminal sugar on the outer membrane glyco-lipid lipooligosaccharide (LOS). Sialic acid expressed on LOS is critical in NTHi biofilm formation and immune evasion. There are two major forms of sialic acids in most mammals, N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac) and N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), the latter of which is derived from Neu5Ac. Humans lack the enzyme to convert Neu5Ac to Neu5Gc and do not express Neu5Gc in normal tissues; instead, Neu5Gc is recognized as a foreign antigen. A recent study showed that dietary Neu5Gc can be acquired by NTHi colonizing humans and then presented on LOS, which acts as an antigen for the initial induction of anti-Neu5Gc antibodies. Here we examined Neu5Gc uptake and presentation on NTHi LOS. We show that, although Neu5Gc and Neu5Ac are utilized equally well as sole carbon sources, Neu5Gc is not incorporated efficiently into LOS. When equal amounts of Neu5Gc and Neu5Ac are provided in culture media, there is ~4-fold more Neu5Ac incorporated into LOS, suggesting a bias in a step of the LOS biosynthetic pathway. CMP-Neu5Ac synthetase (SiaB) was shown to have ~4,000-fold-higher catalytic efficiency for Neu5Ac than for Neu5Gc. These data suggest that NTHi has adapted preferential utilization of Neu5Ac, thus avoiding presentation of the nonhuman Neu5Gc in the bacterial cell surface. The selective pressure for this adaptation may represent the human antibody response to the Neu5Gc xenoantigen. IMPORTANCE Host-adapted bacterial pathogens such as NTHi cannot survive out of their host environment and have evolved host-specific mechanisms to obtain nutrients and evade the immune response. Relatively few of these host adaptations have been characterized at the molecular level. NTHi utilizes sialic acid as a nutrient and also incorporates this sugar into LOS, which is important in biofilm formation and immune evasion. In the present study, we showed that NTHi has evolved to preferentially utilize the Neu5Ac form of sialic acid. This adaptation is due to the substrate preference of the enzyme CMP-Neu5Ac synthetase, which synthesizes the activated form of Neu5Ac for macromolecule biosynthesis. This adaptation allows NTHi to evade killing by a human antibody response against the nonhuman sialic acid Neu5Gc.
Ng, P. S. K., Day, C. J., Atack, J. M., Hartley-Tassell, L. E., Winter, L. E., Marshanski, T., … Jennings, M. P. (2019). Nontypeable haemophilus influenzae has evolved preferential use of N-acetylneuraminic acid as a host adaptation. MBio, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.00422-19