The structure of glycogen
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Standing alone against the Appalachian backdrop of pine trees, a cabin-esque, multi-story structure serves as a simultaneously quiet and bustling center of potential. This building is the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (CCRC) – housed on the University of Georgia campus, it is one of three premier facilities in the world dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of one of life’s most prominent and unknown substances. The research being done within its confines could mean drastic improvements to medicine, energy, and society as we know it.
Complex carbohydrates are omnipresent; they are important elements in forming multiple structures and they attach to other substances to create new compounds, like glycoprotein when combined with protein and glycolipids when combined with lipids. Despite their overwhelming abundance, however, many aspects of complex carbohydrates have eluded discovery by the scientific community. This is partly due to the thousands of three-dimensional shapes, caused by folds and twists in the substance, a complex carbohydrate can take; their presence in the new compounds previously mentioned poses a challenge for complex carbohydrate research as well.
As the structures, properties, and functions of easier-to-scrutinize nucleic acids and proteins become more well-understood, more and more researchers have turned their laboratories to focus on complex carbohydrate research of all kinds. The research at the CCRC is particularly exciting. CCRC founder and director Dr. Alan Darvill is currently looking to create powerful new medical therapies at the Center because, as he says, “there is hardly a human disease that doesn’t involve complex carbohydrates.” The basis for his statement is that, at the cellular level, various types of complex carbohydrates regulate gene expression, properly construct proteins, and form a tangled web called a glycocalyx across the cell’s surface which helps trigger immune response. Though much about these functions remains a mystery, it is known that the carbohydrates in glycocalyx change chemical composition in cancerous cells. Understanding more about these chemical differences may help Dr. Darvill and his team find a way to more effectively combat cancer cells.
Research on changes in the chemical composition in glycocalyx extends far beyond cancer, however; these chemical changes also occur during cell differentiation, meaning that stem-cell therapies could become much more powerful with more knowledge of glycocalyx. CCRC scientists Kelley Moremen and Michael Tiemeyer have recently identified certain enzymes in stem-cell differentiation, a major step toward fully understanding stem-cell transformation and toward improving stem-cell therapies.
Image from Wikimedia Commmons
In addition to medical research, the idea of extracting energy from plants is also undergoing study at the CCRC. Professor of biochemistry Debra Mohnen and her team have recently discovered a link between two types of carbohydrates and a protein in the structure of a plant’s cell wall. Such a breakthrough will help scientists determine the structure of the cell wall and, therefore, how to break it down cheaply and effectively. Deconstructing cell walls frees up massive amounts of sugars which can be fermented and made into various biofuels.
The CCRC is making headway on complex carbohydrate research. With such potential in the areas of medicine and energy, it will be exciting to see what great things the teams at this facility discover in the years to come.