“Great Advances In… Medicine, Energy, and Materials Science”

In late October, 2012, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a 200 page document calling for “a new focus on glycoscience.” Glycoscience, or glycobiology, is a field that explores the structures and functions of sugars. The report stated that this field “promises great advances in areas as diverse as medicine, energy generation, and materials science.”

Cell surface sugar structures, referred to as ‘glycans,’ are also known in the scientific world as carbohydrates, saccharides, antigens, glycoproteins, cell adhesion molecules, and cell receptors. They play critical roles in many biological processes and have properties which are useful in a myriad of ways. The report concluded that these sugars “have not received the attention they deserve.” These glycans are in complex, bush-shaped structures and the research community lacks tools to investigate and probe their sugar sequences and properties. The NAS laid out goals for U.S. agencies to meet so this field of study will develop and receive the attention it needs beginning in high school, through college, and on to post-doctoral education.

Important Facts From The NAS Report


  1. Glycans are the most abundant family of organic molecules on the planet.
  2. The potential information content of glycans vastly exceeds that of any other class of macromolecules.
  3. Every living cell on the planet is covered with a dense and complex array of glycans. These glycans form the glycocalyx in many types of cells (such as in humans) and comprise the cell wall in others (such as plants). Some cells do not have a nucleus, but all have a glycocalyx or cell wall.
  4. Every molecule, cell, or organism that interacts with a cell must do so in the context of the glycocalyx or cell wall.
  5. The vast majority of cellular and secreted proteins are modified with glycans, which in turn serve as “on/off” switches and modify, alter, and/or control the expresion of these proteins.


  1. Elimination of any single major class of glycans from an organism results in death.
  2. Every disease that affects humans significantly involves glycans.
  3. A great majority of host-pathogen interactions involve glycans, via recognition, degradation, or molecular mimicry.
  4. Most protein therapeutics must be glycosylated properly to be functionally effective.
  5. Altered glycosylation is a universal feature of cancer and contributes to pathogenesis and progression.
  6. Many vaccines are glycan based.

Important Findings From The NAS Report

  • Unlike DNA and proteins, glycans are not created by following a template. Instead, the reactions that link individual sugar units together are influenced by factors including cellular metabolism, cell type, developmental stage, and nutrient availability. These factors provide substantial diversity and allow for glycans with a wide array of properties, but also make glycans more difficult to study and manipulate in the laboratory.
  • Glycans play roles in almost every biological process and are involved in every major disease. A better understanding of these roles could yield advances in medicine. For example, glycans inside cells help influence the expression of genes and proteins, forming part of a cell’s response to biological signals. These properties mean glycans are useful as components of therapeutic drugs to help treat chronic and infectious diseases and as biomarkers to detect diseases like cancer.
  • In human health, glycans are involved in myriad processes that are part of normal physiology, development, and cell signaling, along with the development of both chronic and infectious diseases. For example, glycans on cell surfaces are important in molecular recognition. One example of this function is their role in the movement of white blood cells through the body to a site of infection, enabling the immune system to respond where needed. Much of the information content in cells is encompassed in the glycome.

Clearly the science of sugar will be critical to developing a correct understanding of the biology of human health. As science learns more about the structure and function of these glycans, we will be much more capable in supporting our immune system to perform the job it was designed to do.

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