Unsaturated fatty acid synthesis in bacteria: Mechanisms and regulation of canonical and remarkably noncanonical pathways

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Unsaturated phospholipid acyl chains are required for membrane function in most bacteria. The double bonds of the cis monoenoic chains arise by two distinct pathways depending on whether oxygen is required. The oxygen-independent pathway (traditionally called the anaerobic pathway) introduces the cis double bond by isomerization of the trans double bond intermediate of the fatty acid elongation cycle. Double bond isomerization occurs at an intermediate chain length (e.g., C10) and the isomerization product is elongated to the C16–C18 chains that become phospholipid monoenoic acyl chains. This pathway was first delineated in Escherichia coli and became the paradigm pathway. However, studies of other bacteria show deviations from this paradigm, the most exceptional being reversal of the fatty acid elongation cycle by a reaction paralleling the initial step in the β-oxidative degradation of fatty acids. In the oxygen-dependent pathway diiron enzymes called desaturases introduce a double bond into a saturated acyl chain by regioselective cis dehydrogenation through activation of molecular oxygen with an active-site diiron cluster. This difficult hydrogen abstraction from a methylene group often occurs at the midpoint of a saturated fatty acyl chain. In bacteria the acyl chain is a phospholipid acyl chain, and the desaturase is membrane bound. Both the oxygen-independent oxygen-dependent pathways are transcriptionally regulated by repressor and activator proteins that respond to small molecule ligands such as acyl-CoAs. However, in Bacillus subtilis the desaturase is synthesized only at low growth temperatures, a process controlled by a signal transduction regulatory pathway dependent on membrane lipid properties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)137-151
Number of pages15
StatePublished - Mar 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry


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