Escherichia coli K-12 and K-12 hybrid strains constructed to express a polysialic acid capsule, the K1 antigen, were able to efficiently use sialic acid as a sole carbon source. This ability was dependent on induction of at least two activities: a sialic acid-specific transport activity, and an aldolase activity specific for cleaving sialic acids. Induction over basal levels required sialic acid as the apparent inducer, and induction of both activities was repressed by glucose. Induction also required the intracellular accumulation of sialic acid, which could be either added exogenously to the medium or accumulated intracellularly through biosynthesis. Exogenous sialic acid appeared to be transported by an active mechanism that did not involve covalent modification of the sugar. Mutations affecting either the transport or degradation of sialic acid prevented its use as a carbon source and have been designated nanT and nanA, respectively. These mutations were located by transduction near min 69 on the E. coli K-12 genetic map, between argG and glnF. In addition to being unable to use sialic acid as a carbon source, aldolase-negative mutants were growth-inhibited by this sugar. Therefore, the intracellularly accumulated sialic acid was toxic in aldolase-deficient E. coli strains. The dual role of aldolase in dissimilating and detoxifying sialic acids is consistent with the apparent multiple controls on expression of this enzyme.