The Siglecs (Sialic acid-binding Immunoglobulin Superfamily Lectins) are a recently discovered family of mammalian glycan-binding proteins that have been shown to recognize the terminal sialic acids of glycoproteins and glycolipids. The CD33-Related Siglecs (CD33rSiglecs, namely Siglec-3, -5 through -11 and -XII in humans) are a subgroup of these molecules, which are thought to be primarily expressed on cells of the innate immune system. All CD33rSiglecs are type-1 transmembrane proteins with an N-terminal sialic acid-recognizing V-set domain followed by a variable number of C-2 set domains, a transmembrane region and a cytosolic C-terminal domain that usually has two tyrosine-based signaling motifs, one of which conforms to a canonical negative regulatory ITIM motif. Although the true function of the CD33rSiglecs has yet to be discovered, available data are most consistent with an inhibitory signaling role in the innate immune response, mediated by recognition of host sialic acids as “self”. CD33rSiglecs also interact with sialic acids on the same cell surface, typically resulting in “masking” of their sialic acid-binding sites. Our recent studies have shown that humans and non-human primates have a similar clustered localization of CD33rSiglec genes, and that true orthologs can generally be identified within each cluster (Angata et al., PNAS, in press). However, humans no longer express CMP-sialic acid hydroxylase (CMAH) the enzyme required to generate one of the potential CD33rSiglec sialic acid ligands called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), from its precursor N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac). This genetic change occurred after our last common ancestor with the great apes, and dramatically altered the “Sialome” (the sialic acid makeup of a specific species) of humans when compared to that of the great apes. While great ape blood cells express about equal amounts of Neu5Ac and Neu5Gc, human blood cells express almost exclusively Neu5Ac. We also recently discovered that preferential recognition of Neu5Gc is the ancestral condition of most or all of the great ape (chimpanzee and gorilla) CD33rSiglecs (

Sonnenburg JL, Altheide TK, Varki A.
). We therefore reasoned that the sudden and major change in the sialome of our hominid ancestors could have had a significant impact on the evolution, binding specificities and expression patterns of CD33rSiglecs. Indeed, we have found that all human CD33rSiglecs can recognize both Neu5Ac and Neu5Gc. This presumably represents an evolutionarily-selected “relaxation” in binding specificity that was necessary to “remask” the Siglecs that had lost their Neu5Gc ligands. Also, there are differences in CD33rSiglec expression on monocytes and neutrophils between humans and great apes (chimp, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan). Furthermore, while great ape cells often show multiple populations with different signal intensities, humans express a single bright peak for each Siglec in flow cytometry. Surprisingly, while humans showed almost no CD33rSiglec expression on lymphocytes, the great apes show a moderate to high expression of some Siglecs on these cells. Total leukocyte expression of some CD33rSiglecs also shows differences between humans and great apes. Overall, CD33rSiglecs appear to be rapidly evolving in primates, with an apparent further acceleration of changes in humans. Additional studies are needed to define the mechanistic details, as well as the implications for human health and disease.

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