Synthetic sugars

Ben Schumann : Chemical Glycobiology Laboratory

We use synthetic ‘precision tools’ to understand how particular carbohydrate molecules control processes in and on the living cell.

The outermost layer of every living cell is made of carbohydrate molecules known as glycans. Consequently, these molecules influence how cells interact with each other in all kingdoms of life. Changes in cell surface glycans are strongly associated with human disease, particularly the formation of tumours.

The process of adding sugar molecules to a protein is called glycosylation, and is one of the most common - and complex - ways that proteins can be modified after they are made. 

The most advanced lab techniques for investigating the structure and function of biomolecules target nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and proteins, all of which are made from a ‘template’. Glycans are produced differently so these traditional techniques are unsuitable.

For this reason, we use synthetic tools in our work. For example, we can chemically modify single monosaccharides – the most basic unit of carbohydrates – and then track how these are incorporated into proteins.

We use synthetic chemistry to develop such sugars, and employ methods of molecular and cell biology to study how they are used to dissect the implications of glycans in health and disease.