The capsule of Campylobacter jejuni strain 81-176 comprises the unusual 6-deoxy-α-D-altro-heptose, whose biosynthesis and function are not known. In the present study, we characterized enzymes of the capsular cluster, WcbK and WcaG, to determine their role in 6-deoxy-altro-heptose synthesis. These enzymes are similar to the Yersinia pseudotuberculosis GDP-manno-heptose dehydratase/reductase DmhA/DmhB that we characterized previously. Capillary electrophoresis and MS analyses showed that WcbK is a GDP-manno-heptose dehydratase whose product can be reduced by WcaG, and that WcbK/WcaG can use the substrate GDP-mannose, although with lower efficiency than heptose. Comparison of kinetic parameters for WcbK and DmhA indicated that the relaxed substrate specificity of WcbK comes at the expense of catalytic performance on GDP-manno-heptose. Moreover, although WcbK/WcaG and DmhA/DmhB are involved in altro- versus manno-heptose synthesis respectively, the enzymes can be used interchangeably in mixed reactions. NMR spectroscopy analyses indicated conservation of the sugar manno configuration during catalysis by WcbK/WcaG. Therefore additional capsular enzymes may perform the C3 epimerization necessary to generate 6-deoxy-altro-heptose. Finally, a conserved residue (Thr187 in WcbK) potentially involved in substrate specificity was identified by structural modelling of mannose and heptose dehydratases. Site-directed mutagenesis and kinetic analyses demonstrated its importance for enzymatic activity on heptose and mannose substrates.

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