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Image: E. coli AB(5) toxin bound to Neu5Gc-2,3Gal-1,3GlcNAc (PDB ID 3DWQ). See Nature (2008) 456:648-652. Courtesy Ajit Varki.


Glycobiology is the study of the structure, biosynthesis and biology of glycans. All cells and many proteins are covered with a dense and complex array of covalently attached sugar chains (called oligosaccharides or glycans). Glycans play crucial roles in constructing complex multicellular organs and organisms, a process that requires interactions of cells with one another and with the surrounding extracellular matrix. Most classes of glycans are exposed on the surface of cellular and secreted macromolecules, and thus are in an optimal position to modulate or mediate a variety of events in cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions. They are also in a position to mediate interactions between organisms, e.g., between host and parasite. In addition, simple, rapidly turning-over protein-bound glycans are abundant in the nucleus and cytoplasm, where they serve as regulatory switches. While glycans affect most types of research in the department, some faculty have primary interests in glycobiology. Their research covers diverse biological systems, employing genetic, biochemical, and structural approaches to study the biological and disease roles of mammalian glycosylation using cell culture models, the mouse as a model organism, evolutionary relationships amongst primates, and physiological and genetic disorders in humans. Glycobiology is an integrative science, crossing all subfields of chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Drs. Esko and Varki codirect the Glycobiology Research and Training Center (GRTC) at UC San Diego, which supports the GlycoAnalytics Core, organizes an annual symposium that draws investigators from throughout the San Diego area and UC system, and organizes GTRC courses related to glycobiology. They coauthored and edited the first internationally recognized textbook in the field, Essentials of Glycobiology. This worldwide standard reference is the first open access textbook, presented in collaboration with the National Library of Medicine of the NIH. CMM faculty also direct the Programs of Excellence in Glycosciences (PEG) of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, with the UCSD unit being the national coordinating hub for five others across the country.