Tackling challenges in glycoscience
August 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
The National Academies released its roadmap for the field of glycoscience today. The committee, whose members were drawn from fields as disparate as biofuel engineering and molecular biology, came up with five long-term goals to push the field of glycoscience forward.
Why a roadmap for a field that appears at first glance as a niche area? Well, simply because it’s not a niche area. Glycoscience has repercussions on the fuels we use, the drugs we take and the materials we use. (The committee didn’t look into the effect glycoscience may have in the food and nutrition industry because it was outside the scope of its expertise. But glycoscience does have an influence.)
Glycans are everywhere. Along with nucleic acids, proteins and lipids, they are fundamental macromolecules in living systems. Every living cell is covered with glycans on the cell membrane, giving its characteristic bristle-brush look; if the cell is a plant or a microorganism one, glycans are in the cell wall.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about what glycans do for us. One of the most common reactions on Earth is photosynthesis. The reaction ultimately results in starch, glycogen, or cellulose. These are glycans that are exploited in metabolic pathways when we eat them or give structural support in the wood we use in our furniture, musical instruments and other tools.
Glycans have roles in cell signaling, molecular recognition (think of the ABO blood group categories, which are based on sugars), immunity and inflammation. Mistakes in glycan structure and function have been linked to diseases such as cancer, and the metabolism of simple sugars, like glucose and fructose, has grave implications for treating diabetes and obesity.
Despite their importance, research into glycans has lagged behind that of nucleic acids and proteins. One reason is that glycans are hard to study. They have a dizzying array of structures and functions, and their synthesis, unlike that of nucleic acids or proteins, is not based on a blueprint.
But the time has come, say this report’s authors, to tackle those challenges. Given that glycans are one of the four fundamental macromolecules of life, the committee’s chairman, David Walt of Tufts University, likens glyoscience to “the third leg of the stool.” Walt says that to fully realize the potential of the Human Genome Project and its subsequent unleashing of genomics and proteomics, a deeper and more thorough understanding of glycan biology and chemistry is absolutely necessary. “Without glycoscience, you don’t have the full picture” of living systems, he says.
In meeting the challenges in glycoscience, the committee has made five recommendations, which cover a broad swath of ground and should pull in researchers from a variety of fields, such as biocomputational science and biochemistry. The recommendations are:
1) Develop new methods that make it easy to synthesize carbohydrates and molecules with glycans attached to them.
2) Make tools for the detection, imaging, separation and high-resolution structure determination of glycans and complex mixtures.
3) Come up with ways to manipulate glycan structure, recognition, metabolism and biosynthesis.
4) Create informatics tools that are robust and validated to model and predict glycan structures as well as do data mining.
The committee also suggests that undergraduate and graduate students in the life sciences get a solid grounding in glycoscience. “They shouldn’t just think genes and proteins are where the action’s at,” says Walt. “They should also have an appreciation for glycans.”