The study of bacterial extracellular polysaccharide biosynthesis is hampered by the fact that these molecules are synthesized on membrane-resident carrier lipids. To get around this problem, a practical solution has been to synthesize soluble lipid analogs and study the biosynthetic enzymes using a soluble system. This has been done for the
Bacillus subtilisteichoic acid polymerase, TagF, although several aspects of catalysis were inconsistent with the results obtained with reconstituted membrane systems or physiological observations. In this work we explored the acceptor substrate promiscuity and polymer length disregulation that appear to be characteristic of TagF activity away from biological membranes. Using isotope labeling, steady-state kinetics, and chemical lability studies, we demonstrated that the enzyme can synthesize poly(glycerol phosphate) teichoic acid using the elongation substrate CDP-glycerol as an acceptor. This suggests that substrate specificity is relaxed in the region distal to the glycerol phosphate moiety in the acceptor molecule under these conditions. Polymer synthesis proceeded at a rate (27 min −1 ) comparable to that in the reconstituted membrane system after a distinct lag period which likely represented slower initiation on the unnatural CDP-glycerol acceptor. We confirmed that polymer length became disregulated in the soluble system as the polymers synthesized on CDP-glycerol acceptors were much larger than the polymers synthesized on the membrane or previously found attached to bacterial cell walls. Finally, polymer synthesis on protease-treated membranes suggested that proper length regulation is retained in the absence of accessory proteins and provided evidence that such regulation is conferred through proper association of the polymerase with the membrane.