Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are characterised by their conversion of a large proportion of their carbon feed, fermentable sugars, to lactic acid. However, in addition to lactic acid production, the LAB are able to divert a small proportion of fermentable sugars towards the biosynthesis of exopolysaccharides (EPSs) that are independent of the cell surface and cell wall material. These microbial EPSs when suspended or dissolved in aqueous solution provide thickening and gelling properties, and, as such, there is great interest in using EPSs from food grade microorganisms (such as the LAB that are traditionally used for food fermentations) for use as thickening agents. The current review includes a brief summary of the recent literature describing features of the biosynthetic pathways leading to EPS production. Many aspects of EPS biosynthesis in LAB are still not fully understood and a number of inferences are made regarding the similarity of the pathway to those involved in the synthesis of other cell polysaccharides, e.g., cell wall components. The main body of the review will cover practical aspects concerned with the isolation and characterisation of EPS structures. In the last couple of years, a substantial number of structures have been published and a summary of the common elements of these structures is included as is a suggestion for a system for representing structures. A brief highlight of the attempts that are being made to design ‘tailor’-made polysaccharides using genetic modification and control of metabolic flux is presente
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