Open Access Research article

Sialic acid mediated transcriptional modulation of a highly conserved sialometabolism gene cluster in Haemophilus influenzae and its effect on virulence

Gaynor A Jenkins1, Marisol Figueira2, Gaurav A Kumar1, Wendy A Sweetman1, Katherine Makepeace1, Stephen I Pelton2, Richard Moxon1 and Derek W Hood1*

Author Affiliations

1 Molecular Infectious Diseases Group, University of Oxford Department of Paediatrics, Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, John Radcliffe Hospital, Headington, Oxford, OX3 9DS, UK

2 Maxwell Finland Laboratory for Infectious Diseases, Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Medical Center, 774 Albany Street, Boston, MA 02118, USA

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BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:48  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-48

Published: 16 February 2010



Sialic acid has been shown to be a major virulence determinant in the pathogenesis of otitis media caused by the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. This study aimed to characterise the expression of genes required for the metabolism of sialic acid and to investigate the role of these genes in virulence.


Using qRT-PCR, we observed decreased transcriptional activity of genes within a cluster that are required for uptake and catabolism of 5-acetyl neuraminic acid (Neu5Ac), when bacteria were cultured in the presence of the sugar. We show that these uptake and catabolic genes, including a sialic acid regulatory gene (siaR), are highly conserved in the H. influenzae natural population. Mutant strains were constructed for seven of the nine genes and their influence upon LPS sialylation and resistance of the bacteria to the killing effect of normal human serum were assessed. Mutations in the Neu5Ac uptake (TRAP transporter) genes decreased virulence in the chinchilla model of otitis media, but the attenuation was strain dependent. In contrast, mutations in catabolism genes and genes regulating sialic acid metabolism (siaR and crp) did not attenuate virulence.


The commensal and pathogenic behaviour of H. influenzae involves LPS sialylation that can be influenced by a complex regulatory interplay of sialometabolism genes.