Centre for Engineering Biology

Breakthrough paper published in Nature Chemical Biology

Discovery of cryptic bacterial sphingolipids reveals a convergent evolutionary biosynthetic pathway

Sphingolipids (SLs) and their acylated derivatives ceramides, are found ubiquitously in eukaryotes from fungi to plants, to animals. By contrast, SLs have been identified in only a handful of bacterial taxa.

The structures and functions of SLs varies from species to species but recent research has revealed that SLs play important roles mediating the host-microbe interaction.

One emerging and interesting area is the role that Bacteroides SLs play in the human microbiome. 

A research collaboration between Professor Dominic Campopiano, School of Chemistry and a member of SynthSys, with American Collaborators Dr Eric Klein (Rutgers) and Prof. Ziqiang Guan (Duke University),  is helping to shed light on the function of bacterial SLs and understand how the biosynthetic pathways from various species have evolved.

They began by applying a combined screening/selection approach in Caulobacter crescentus. This revealed genes and enzymes with novel functions that had either no annotated or mis-annotated function. Chemical and biochemical analysis of the isolated SLs and enzymes defined new functions for these enzymes and new order of reactions. With six genes in hand, they used bioinformatics to find hidden homologs in other microbes and were excited to discover many more bacteria have the potential to make SLs.

We are now poised to understand their roles in these organisms and potentially build designer lipid vesicles using bacterial-derived biocatalysts. Our work supports the hypothesis that the bacterial and eukaryotic ceramide pathways evolved independently.

Professor Dominic CampopianoChair of Industrial Biocatalysis, School of Chemistry

The paper is out now in Nature Chemical Biology


Related links 

Nature Chemical Biology Paper: Convergent evolution of bacterial ceramide synthesis

Joint BBSRC/NSF Funding for new strategy to make designer lipids