Created by on 08/27/2012


A new report from the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies focuses on the current status and the future of glycoscience. The field, born of chemistry more than biology, lags behind in the technical revolution that powered DNA and proteins to their deserved prominence. While the report recognizes substantial achievements in studying carbohydrates or glycans, it focuses on current limitations, proposes ways to overcome them and offers a roadmap for funding agencies to improve understanding of underappreciated sugars. In response, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) quickly posted a notice on the Common Fund Strategic Planning page listing Glycosience as a future target.
Glycoscience impacts health, energy, and material science, which explains why NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and Food and Drug Administration all supported this study led by chemist David Walt, of Tufts University. Glycans are literally involved in every human disease and biological process. Biofuels in plant cell walls are highly complex polysaccharides and the inherent properties of cellulose make it the most likely renewable successor to time-limited fossil fuel products.
If glycans are so important, why has scientific appreciation lagged? The simple answer is that glycans are not simple in structure, biosynthesis, information content or commercial   availability. Several decades of nucleic acid and protein technology bypassed glycoscience because glycan structural analysis is tedious, synthesis is challenging, and tools are in short supply. The field has not generated a universal, easily-accessible database. Glycans lack a PCR equivalent and there is no comprehensive glycan repository to click and “add to a shopping cart.”
The report strongly encourages funding agencies to prioritize glycoscience. Key features emphasize chemistry and include new methods for glycan synthesis, detection, imaging, separation, and structural determination. Additional tools and methods to manipulate glycan structure, recognition, metabolism, and biosynthesis and computational modeling and data mining of glycans are also needed. All of this will require an integrated, centralized database of planet Earth’s glycome (mammalian, plant and microbial) cross-referenced with established databases. Expanded glycan education at all levels from high school through medical residency with a strong presence on formal exams can help propel and sustain this much anticipated revolution in glycoscience.
Contributed by Hudson Freeze, PhD, Director of the Genetic Disease Program at the Sanford Children’s Health Research Center, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and the Society for Glycobiology’s representative to the FASEB Board of Directors.