In the fight against viruses and other pathogens, scientists are looking beyond genes and proteins to the complex sugars, or glycans, on cell surfaces.
Cells are furry. That might come as a surprise, since textbook illustrations so often represent a cell as smooth — “something like a balloon full of water,” said Elisa Fadda, a computational chemist at Maynooth University in Ireland. “But that is absolutely not true.” In reality, the surface of a cell is adorned with a forest canopy of sugars, intricate and diverse clusters of carbohydrates that extend like branches and leaves from protein tree trunks. And because that canopy is the face that a cell shows to the world, these complex carbohydrates, or glycans, play a critical role in its encounters and interactions with other cells or molecules.
The prominence of glycans in biomedical research has been rising for some time, as researchers have explored how the sugars help to activate, regulate and direct the immune response. The study of glycans’ structure and function in human health and disease has already led to a better understanding of various pathogens and to novel therapies and vaccines. But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought greater urgency to the subject because many scientists believe that knowledge of glycans could prove essential for combating the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several research teams have already published the first detailed models of the virus’s glycans — models that point to the pathogen’s potential vulnerabilities.
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