Previous studies have indicated negligible levels of both sialylation and the precursor N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac) in a number of insect cell lines grown in serum-free medium. The overexpression of the human sialic acid 9-phosphate synthase (SAS) in combination with N-acetylmannosamine (ManNAc) feeding has been shown to overcome this limitation. In this study we evaluated the potential bottlenecks in the sialic acid synthesis pathway in a Spodopterafrugiperda (Sf9) insect cell line and devised strategies to overcome them by overexpression of the enzymatic pathway enzymes combined with appropriate substrate feeding. Coexpression of SAS and UDP-GlcNAc 2-epimerase/ManNAc kinase, the bifunctional enzyme initiating sialic acid biosynthesis in mammals, resulted in Neu5Ac synthesis without use of any external media supplementation to demonstrate that Neu5Ac could be generated intracellularly in Sf9 cells using natural metabolic precursors. N-Acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) feeding in combination with this coexpression resulted in much higher levels of Neu5Ac compared to levels obtained with ManNAc feeding with SAS expression alone. The lower Neu5Ac levels obtained with ManNAc feeding suggested limitations in the transport and phosphorylation of ManNAc. The bottleneck in phosphorylation was likely due to utilization of GlcNAc kinase for phosphorylation of ManNAc in insect cells and was overcome by expression of ManNAc kinase. The transport limitation was addressed by the addition of tetra-O-acetylated ManNAc, which is easily taken up by the cells. An alternative sialic acid, 2-keto-3-deoxy-D-glycero-D-galacto-nononic acid (KDN), could also be generated in insect cells, suggesting the potential for controlling not only the production of sialic acids but also the type of sialic acid generated. The levels of KDN could be increased with virtually no Neu5Ac generation when Sf9 cells were fed excess GlcNAc. The results of these studies may be used to enhance the sialylation of target glycoproteins in insect and other eukaryotic expression systems.
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