Complete biosynthesis of the potent vaccine adjuvant QS-21.

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QS-21 is a potent vaccine adjuvant currently sourced by extraction from the Chilean soapbark tree. It is a key component of human vaccines for shingles, malaria, coronavirus disease 2019 and others under development. The structure of QS-21 consists of a glycosylated triterpene scaffold coupled to a complex glycosylated 18-carbon acyl chain that is critical for immunostimulant activity. We previously identified the early pathway steps needed to make the triterpene glycoside scaffold; however, the biosynthetic route to the acyl chain, which is needed for stimulation of T cell proliferation, was unknown. Here, we report the biogenic origin of the acyl chain, characterize the series of enzymes required for its synthesis and addition and reconstitute the entire 20-step pathway in tobacco, thereby demonstrating the production of QS-21 in a heterologous expression system. This advance opens up unprecedented opportunities for bioengineering of vaccine adjuvants, investigating structure-activity relationships and understanding the mechanisms by which these compounds promote the human immune response.