Engineering Escherichia coli for increased Und-P availability leads to material improvements in glycan expression technology

Microb Cell Fact. 2024 Mar 1;23(1):72. doi: 10.1186/s12934-024-02339-8.


Background: Bacterial surface glycans are assembled by glycosyltransferases (GTs) that transfer sugar monomers to long-chained lipid carriers. Most bacteria employ the 55-carbon chain undecaprenyl phosphate (Und-P) to scaffold glycan assembly. The amount of Und-P available for glycan synthesis is thought to be limited by the rate of Und-P synthesis and by competition for Und-P between phosphoglycosyl transferases (PGTs) and GTs that prime glycan assembly (which we collectively refer to as PGT/GTs). While decreasing Und-P availability disrupts glycan synthesis and promotes cell death, less is known about the effects of increased Und-P availability.

Results: To determine if cells can maintain higher Und-P levels, we first reduced intracellular competition for Und-P by deleting all known non-essential PGT/GTs in the Gram-negative bacterium Escherichia coli (hereafter called ΔPGT/GT cells). We then increased the rate of Und-P synthesis in ΔPGT/GT cells by overexpressing the Und-P(P) synthase uppS from a plasmid (puppS). Und-P quantitation revealed that ΔPGT/GT/puppS cells can be induced to maintain 3-fold more Und-P than wild type cells. Next, we determined how increasing Und-P availability affects glycan expression. Interestingly, increasing Und-P availability increased endogenous and recombinant glycan expression. In particular, ΔPGT/GT/puppS cells could be induced to express 7-fold more capsule from Streptococcus pneumoniae serotype 4 than traditional E. coli cells used to express recombinant glycans.

Conclusions: We demonstrate that the biotechnology standard bacterium E. coli can be engineered to maintain higher levels of Und-P. The results also strongly suggest that Und-P pathways can be engineered to increase the expression of potentially any Und-P-dependent polymer. Given that many bacterial glycans are central to the production of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics, increasing Und-P availability should be a foremost consideration when designing bacterial glycan expression systems.

Keywords: Capsule; Glycoengineering; Polysaccharide; Undecaprenyl phosphate.

MeSH terms

  • Biotechnology
  • Escherichia coli* / genetics
  • Polyisoprenyl Phosphates*
  • Polysaccharides


  • undecaprenyl phosphate
  • Polyisoprenyl Phosphates
  • Polysaccharides