What is Glycobiology?

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  • Written By: Maggie J. Hall
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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Glycobiology studies the biology, chemical synthesis and structure of sugars and saccharides as singular molecules and in combination with other molecules. The vast field combines traditional sciences and involves various medical biochemical and biotechnological fields. The subcategory research of glycomics analyzes sugars and combined molecular structures with respect to genetics, pathology and physiology. With advanced technology, researchers discovered that sugar chains, or glycans, play a much more complex role than merely acting as an energy resource for all living organisms.

Though the word "glycobiology" first appeared in the Oxford English dictionary in 1988, the innovative field produced preliminary discoveries in the late 1800s. Combining organic chemistry and cellular biology, researchers uncovered the dependent relationship between sugars and proteins in all living organisms. Glycan-protein relationships were instrumental in the creation of penicillin.

After isolating and translating the complex protein structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) code, scientists located the basis of life. The studies eventually enhanced the modern world in numerous fields from genetics to crime solving. In similar fashion, researchers incorporate glycobiology with spectrometry and spectroscopy to separate sugar and protein-glycan molecules by using electrical or magnetic fields. Scientists realized that molecules found in simple and complex carbohydrates contained a multifaceted language, proving to be much more sophisticated and variable than DNA. Researchers found that more than 50 percent of the body’s proteins combine with sugars.


As of 2010, scientists had yet to comprehend and unlock the entire glycan language. Glycobiologists have discovered that carbohydrate coding increases in complexity when combined with various other molecules. The act of sugar and protein integration, or protein glycosylation, appears vital for proper functioning of numerous cellular activities within the body. Studies derived from glycobiology suggest that glycans affect and regulate every aspect of cellular existence.

Cells require sugars not only for energy but also for recognition and interaction with other cells. Basic cellular structural integrity relies heavily on complex protein-glycan combinations. The presence of carbohydrates controls embryonic development, triggers growth factors and regulates hormones. Blood clotting, cellular adhesion properties and receptor binding also require protein-glycan molecules. Breakthroughs in glycobiology show promise in furthering the understanding of pathogenic organisms while enhancing the development of revolutionary medications.

The burgeoning field of glycobiology holds promise as a tool for combating bacterial, fungal and viral infections. Multiple dangerous drug-resistant and mutated disease-causing microorganisms plague societies. By exploring and learning protein-glycan molecule development and function on a cellular level, scientists have hoped to unlock the secrets of pathogen development, survival and vulnerabilities.


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