The rfp gene of Shigella dysenteriae 1 and the rfa genes of Escherichia coli K-12 and Salmonella typhimurium LT2 have been studied to determine their relationship to lipopolysaccharide (LPS) core heterogeneity and their role in the attachment of O antigen to LPS. It has been inferred from the nucleotide sequence that the rfp gene encodes a protein of 41,864 Da which has a structure similar to that of RfaG protein. Expression of this gene in E. coli K-12 results in the loss of one of the three bands seen in gel analysis of the LPS and in the appearance of a new, more slowly migrating band. This is consistent with the hypothesis that Rfp is a sugar transferase which modifies a subset of core molecules so that they become substrates for attachment of S. dysenteriae O antigen. A shift in gel migration of the bands carrying S. dysenteriae O antigen and disappearance of the Rfp-modified band in strains producing O antigen suggest that the core may be trimmed or modified further before attachment of O antigen. Mutation of rfaL results in a loss of the rough LPS band which appears to be modified by Rfp and prevents the appearance of the Rfp-modified band. Thus, RfaL protein is involved in core modification and is more than just a component of the O-antigen ligase. The products of rfaK and rfaQ also appear to be involved in modification of the core prior to attachment of O antigen, and the sites of rfaK modification are different in E. coli K-12 and S. typhimurium. In contrast, mutations in rfaS and rfaZ result in changes in the LPS core but do not affect the attachment of O antigen. We propose that these genes are involved in an alternative pathway for the synthesis of rough LPS species which are similar to lipooligosaccharides of other species and which are not substrates for O-antigen attachment. All of these studies indicate that the apparent heterogeneity of E. coli K-12 LPS observed on gels is not an artifact but instead a reflection of functional differences among LPS species
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