An Introduction to Glycomics

Glycomics is the study of sugars in living cells.

Glycomics is analogous to genomics and proteomics – it’s the study of sugars in biological systems. Due to the central role that sugars play in many biological processes, the glycomics field is extremely multidisciplinary and has attracted great interest from researchers with diverse backgrounds. Chains of sugars called glycans have been found to play a role in every major disease, and as a result there has been a surge of interest in exploring the therapeutic promise of glycomics.

Sugars are everywhere in our bodies and the environment

Sugar molecules do much more than simply provide a source of food energy – they give trees their strength, determine our blood types, and protect microorganisms from their environments. In fact, sugars (also called carbohydrates or saccharides) are the most abundant biomolecule on the planet. Along with proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids, sugars are one of the fundamental building blocks of biology. Glycans coat the surface of every cell in our bodies, and their attachment to enzymes is the most common post-translational modification.

Sugars are a challenge to study, but this is changing – fast

Unlike nucleic acids and proteins, glycans are not synthesized using a template, and so their expression and composition can vary wildly depending upon the local cellular environment. As well, individual sugars can be linked together in many more ways than nucleic acids and proteins, greatly complicating synthetic and analytical efforts. For these reasons, automated synthesis and databases are not as well developed in glycomics as they are in genomics and proteomics, but these technologies are advancing rapidly.

In 2015 the Canadian glycomics research community mobilized to form the Canadian Glycomics Network (GlycoNet), funded by the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program and a range of partners. The network now comprises more than 140 researchers at 30 institutions across Canada, with support from more than 140 partners.  Since its inception, GlycoNet has made great strides in understanding the roles that sugars play in serious diseases and advancing new therapies to treat them.

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