An unexpected biochemical strategy for chain initiation is described for the loading module of the polyketide synthase of curacin A, an anticancer lead derived from the marine cyanobacterium Lyngbya majuscula. A central GCN5-related N-acetyltransferase (GNAT) domain bears bifunctional decarboxylase/S-acetyltransferase activity, both unprecedented for the GNAT superfamily. A CurA loading tridomain, consisting of an adaptor domain, the GNAT domain, and an acyl carrier protein, was assessed biochemically, revealing that a domain showing homology to GNAT (GNATL) catalyzes (i) decarboxylation of malonyl-coenzyme A (malonyl-CoA) to acetyl-CoA and (ii) direct S-acetyl transfer from acetyl-CoA to load an adjacent acyl carrier protein domain (ACPL). Moreover, the N-terminal adapter domain was shown to facilitate acetyl-group transfer. Crystal structures of GNATL were solved at 1.95 angstroms (ligand-free form) and 2.75 angstroms (acyl-CoA complex), showing distinct substrate tunnels for acyl-CoA and holo-ACPL binding. Modeling and site-directed mutagenesis experiments demonstrated that histidine-389 and threonine-355, at the convergence of the CoA and ACP tunnels, participate in malonyl-CoA decarboxylation but not in acetyl-group transfer. Decarboxylation precedes acetyl-group transfer, leading to acetyl-ACPL as the key curacin A starter unit.