The identification of cryptic rhamnose biosynthesis genes in Neisseria gonorrhoeae and their relationship to lipopolysaccharide biosynthesis.
Neisseria gonorrhoeae synthesizes a rough lipopolysaccharide that does not contain any of the repetitive units characteristic of the smooth lipopolysaccharide of members of the family Enterobacteriaceae. Three gonococcal homologs of Salmonella serovar typhimurium genes involved in the synthesis of the rhamnose component of the repetitive subunits have been isolated. Gonococcal homologs for rfbB, rfbA, and rfbD were found downstream of the galE gene in a region of the chromosome which shows overall homology with the meningococcal capsule gene complex region D. Sequence alignment demonstrated that the gonococcal gene products have 69, 65, and 54% amino acid identity with the Salmonella proteins RfbB, RfbA, and RfbD. The gonococcal RfbB and RfbA amino acid sequences share even more identical residues (73 and 65%, respectively) with the amino acid sequences derived from Escherichia coli genes o355 and o292, respectively. These genes are clustered with the genes involved in the biosynthesis of enterobacterial common antigen, and o355 is listed in the GenBank and Swiss Protein data banks as rffE (encoding UDP-GlcNAc-2-epimerase). However, complementation studies demonstrated that o355 does not encode the enzyme UDP-GlcNAc-2-epimerase. Gonococcal strains constructed with null mutations in the rfbBAD genes were unchanged in lipopolysaccharide phenotype and in the synthesis of gonococcal carbohydrate-containing C antigen. We were unable to detect any changes in gonococcal phenotype with respect to lipopolysaccharide sialylation, monoclonal-antibody binding, serum sensitivity, or interaction with eukaryotic cells in vitro. We conclude that the absence of a homolog for rfbC precludes the existence of a functional dTDP-rhamnose biosynthesis pathway in the gonococcal strains examined and that these genes are only maintained in N. gonorrhoeae either because of the presence of the galE gene or because of another as yet unrecognized function.