The extracellular polysaccharides elaborated by most or all bacterial species function in cell-to-cell and cell-substratum adhesion, cell signaling, and avoidance or inhibition of noxious agents in animal hosts or free-living environments. Recent advances in our understanding of exopolysaccharide synthesis have been facilitated by comparative approaches in both plant and animal pathogens, as well as in microorganisms of industrial importance. One of the best understood of these systems is the kps locus for polysialic acid synthesis in Escherichia coli K1. The genes for sialic acid synthesis, activation, polymerization and translocation have been identified and assigned at least tentative functions in the synthetic and export pathways. Initial studies of kps thermoregulation suggest that genetic control mechanisms will be involved which are distinct from those already described for several other exopolysaccharides. Information about the common as well as unique features of polysialic acid biosynthesis will increase our knowledge of microbial cell surfaces which in turn may suggest novel targets for therapeutic or industrial interventions.