Expert Report

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A new focus on glycoscience, a field that explores the structures and functions of sugars, promises great advances in areas as diverse as medicine, energy generation, and materials science, this report finds. Glycans—also known as carbohydrates, saccharides, or simply as sugars—play central roles in many biological processes and have properties useful in an array of applications. However, glycans have received little attention from the research community due to a lack of tools to probe their often complex structures and properties. This report presents a roadmap for transforming glycoscience from a field dominated by specialists to a widely studied and integrated discipline, which could lead to a more complete understanding of glycans and help solve key challenges in diverse fields.

Key Messages

  • 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 order to produce biofuel in a cost-efective manner, a more efficient process to convert the energy stored in plant cell walls into fuel is needed. Glycoscience may be able to help develop enzymes and other catalysts to improve this conversion.
  • Scientists are turning to the glycan-based polymers found in nature as alternatives to petroleum-based polymers. Glycan-based polymers can be purified, altered chemically to provide a range of new properties, or even broken down to their constituent sugar units to make chemical precursors for use in the chemical and engineering industries.
  • While significant advances have been made in glycan synthesis, these technologies are only available in specialized laboratories and produce only small quantities of a specific glycan. For glycoscience to advance, widely applicable methods to generate both large and small quantities of glycans are needed. The development of transformative methods for the facile synthesis of carbohydrates and glycoconjugates should be a high priority for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and other relevant stakeholders.
  • A suite of tools analogous to those available for studying nucleic acids and proteins is needed to detect, describe, and purify glycans from natural sources, and characterize their chemical composition and structure. The development of transformative tools for detection, imaging, separation, and high-resolution structure determination of carbohydrate structures and complex mixtures should be a high priority for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Food and Drug Administration, and other relevant stakeholders.
  • Continued advances in molecular modeling can generate insights for understanding glycan structures and properties. Robust, validated informatics tools should be developed in order to enable accurate carbohydrate and glycoconjugate structural prediction, computational modeling, and data mining. This capability will broaden access of glycoscience data to the entire scientific community.
  • An expanded toolbox of enzymes and enzyme inhibitors would help scientists produce, degrade, and study the function of glycans of interest, driving progress in many areas of science. The development of transformative capabilities for perturbing carbohydrate and glycoconjugate structure, recognition, metabolism, and biosynthesis should be a high priority for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and other relevant stakeholders.
  • A long-term-funded, stable, integrated, centralized database, including mammalian, plant and microbial carbohydrates and glycoconjugates, should be established as a collaborative effort by all stakeholders. The carbohydrate structural database needs to be fully cross-referenced with databases that provide complementary biological information, for example, Protein Data Bank and GenBank. Furthermore, there should be a requirement for deposition of new structures into the database using a reporting standard for minimal information.
  • Although there is increasing recognition of glycans' diverse roles and uses, glycoscience is still seen as a niche research area. 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.