A fundamental ultrastructural feature shared by the spirochetal pathogens Treponema pallidum subsp. pallidum (T. pallidum) and Borrelia burgdorferi, the etiological agents of venereal syphilis and
Lyme disease, respectively, is that their most abundant membrane proteins contain covalently attached fatty acids. In this study, we identified the fatty acids covalently bound to lipoproteins of B. burgdorferi and T. pallidum and examined potential acyl donors to these molecules. Palmitate was the predominant fatty acid of both B. burgdorferi and T. pallidum lipoproteins. T. pallidum lipoproteins also contained substantial amounts of stearate, a fatty acid not typically prevalent in prokaryotic lipoproteins. In both spirochetes, the fatty acids of cellular lipids differed from those of their respective lipoproteins. To characterize phospholipids in these organisms, spirochetes were metabolically labeled with [3H]palmitate or [3H]oleate; B. burgdorferi contained only phosphatidylglycerol and phosphatidylcholine, while T. pallidum contained phosphatidylglycerol, phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylinositol, and cardiolipin. Although palmitate predominated in the lipoproteins, there were no apparent differences in the incorporation of these two fatty acids into phospholipids (putative acyl donors). Phospholipase A1 and A2 digestion of phosphatidylcholine from B. burgdorferi and T. pallidum labeled with either [3H]palmitate or [3H]oleate also revealed that neither fatty acid was incorporated preferentially into the 1 and 2 positions (potential acyl donor sites) of the glycerol backbone. The combined findings suggest that fatty acid utilization during lipoprotein synthesis is determined largely by the fatty acid specificities of the lipoprotein acyl transferases. These findings also provide the basis for ongoing efforts to elucidate the relationship between lipoprotein acylation and the physiological functions and inflammatory activities of these molecules.