Towards understanding the functional diversity of cell wall mycolic acids of Mycobacterium tuberculosis

10 Oct 2012

Mycolic acids constitute the waxy layer of the outer cell wall of Mycobacterium spp and a few other genera. They are diverse in structure, providing a unique chromatographic foot-print for almost each of the more than seventy Mycobacterium species. Although mainly esterified to cell wall arabinogalactan, trehalose or glucose, some free mycolic acid is secreted during in vitro growth of M. tuberculosis. In M. tuberculosis, alpha-, keto- and methoxy-mycolic acids are the main classes, each differing in their ability to attract neutrophils, induce foamy macrophages or adopt an antigenic structure for antibody recognition. Of interest is their particular relationship to cholesterol, discovered by their ability to attract cholesterol, to bind Amphotericin B or to be recognised by monoclonal antibodies that cross-react with cholesterol. The structural elements that determine this diverse functionality include the carboxylic acid in the mycolic motif, as well as the nature and stereochemistry of the two functional groups in the merochain. The functional diversity of mycolic acid classes implies that much information may be contained in the selective expression and secretion of mycolic acids to establish tuberculosis after infection of the host. Their cholesteroid nature may relate to how they utilize host cholesterol for their persistent survival.