Sialic acids are nine-carbon sugars that frequently cap glycans at the cell surface in cells of vertebrates as well as cells of certain types of invertebrates and bacteria. The nine-carbon backbone of sialic acids can undergo extensive enzymatic modification in nature and O-acetylation at the C-4/7/8/9 position in particular is widely observed. In recent years, the detection and analysis of O-acetylated sialic acids have advanced, and sialic acid-specific O-acetyltransferases (SOATs) and O-acetylesterases (SIAEs) that add and remove O-acetyl groups, respectively, have been identified and characterized in mammalian cells, invertebrates, bacteria, and viruses. These advances now allow us to draw a more complete picture of the biosynthetic pathway of the diverse O-acetylated sialic acids to drive the generation of genetically and biochemically engineered model cell lines and organisms with altered expression of O-acetylated sialic acids for dissection of their roles in glycoprotein stability, development, and immune recognition, as well as discovery of novel functions. Furthermore, a growing number of studies associate sialic acid O-acetylation with cancer, autoimmunity, and infection, providing rationale for the development of selective probes and inhibitors of SOATs and SIAEs. Here, we discuss the current insights into the biosynthesis and biological functions of O-acetylated sialic acids and review the evidence linking this modification to disease. Furthermore, we discuss emerging strategies for the design, synthesis, and potential application of unnatural Oacetylated sialic acids and inhibitors of SOATs and SIAEs that may enable therapeutic targeting of this versatile sialic acid modification.
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