Complex carbohydrates or glycans are one of the four classes of macromolecules of life along with nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids. These biomolecules are involved in essentially all physiological or pathological processes. For example, cell surface and secreted proteins are modified by covalently-linked glycans, synthesized by approximately 240 glycosyltransferases in mice and humans, that mediate protein folding, cell signaling, and differentiation events. Overwhelming data support the critical relevance of glycosylation in inflammation, in pathogen recognition, the innate immune response, and the development of autoimmune diseases. Advances in understanding the biological functions of specific glycan structures, along with the factors that regulate their functions, will become even more central to understanding molecular structure and function that underlie biology. These advances will provide important avenues to develop future therapeutics and diagnostics. Training the next generations of scientists with broad backgrounds in the study of glycan structure and function—Glycoscience—is clearly a national priority.
Glycoscience is a highly interdisciplinary and diverse field of research. Presently, major advances in this field have resulted in application of chemistry, mainly synthetic and analytical, to biochemical and biological systems. For example, the production of a synthetic glycan array consisting of over 600 structures coupled to slides, funded by a NIGMS “glue” consortium, has been utilized by literally hundreds of investigators in the U.S. and around the world to query putative glycan binding proteins (lectins) produced by viruses, unicellular pathogens, and vertebrates. Breakthroughs in neurobiology, immunology, and pathogen defense, to mention but a few, have resulted. In addition to synthetic chemistry, significant breakthroughs have occurred in applying mass spectrometry to develop glycomics and glycoproteomics of complex mixtures, such as are found in cancer tissues and stem cells. This is certainly also true in the area of the study of plant cell walls. There is intense interest in understanding the structure and biosynthesis of these cells walls to enable strategies that will allow plant biomass to yield energy far beyond what can now be produced by fermenting starch from corn. It could be argued that it is this interface between chemistry and biology that has recently propelled advances in Glycoscience.
Recently, the National Research Council of The National Academies reviewed the importance and possibilities of Glycoscience, and the resulting whitepaper entitled “Transforming Glycoscience: A road map for the future” highlighted the importance of education to further this field of research. The committee noted “that there is a widespread lack of understanding and appreciation of Glycoscience within the scientific and medical communities. It was also noted that, “glycans are integral components of living organisms, whether human, animal, plant or microbe, and glycan products have applications in health, energy and materials science.” The committee concluded “that integrating glycoscience into relevant disciplines in high school, undergraduate, and graduate education, and developing curricula and standardized testing for science competency would increase public as well as professional awareness.”