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FUNCTIONAL GLYCOMICS With NIGMS ‘Glue’ Grant, Glycomics Team Soldiers On

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Life has never been sweeter for the Consortium for Functional Glycomics. With a new five-year, $40.7 million grant courtesy of the National Institute of General Medical Science, the consortium is gearing up to continue its research into the dynamics of protein-carbohydrate interactions and their roles in cell communication.

The consortium was started in response to an offer by NIGMS that it would provide ‘glue’ grants to bring together separately funded groups to form one giant, multi-institutional research project. The international, multi-disciplinary project involves some 300 investigators from more than 170 institutions worldwide, including MIT, Kyoto University, and VU University Medical Center in the Netherlands, to name just a few.

Once regarded as mere storehouses for energy or structural material in cell membranes, glycans are now recognized as playing a significant role in everything from pathogen recognition to ovum fertilization. “We think of sugars as the third alphabet that contains information just like proteins and DNA,” says James Paulson, head investigator at Scripps and a consortium steering committee member. But compared to DNA or proteins, glycans exist in seemingly limitless variation. “I think complexity is a huge issue; it has been traditionally in this field,” Paulson says. With well over several hundred thousand possible structures, combined with limited sequencing technology for glycans, elucidating the glycome is not the priority. For now, the consortium is focusing strictly on glycan function, he says.

The consortium kicked off in 2001 with its first five-year grant of $34 million. “The first five years was primarily putting the platforms in place and really ramping up the productivity of the consortium,” says Paulson. During this initial phase, the group developed a glycan microarray that was used in a joint study earlier this year among Scripps, the CDC, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to determine which mutations are required in the avian flu virus to adapt to the human population.

The consortium’s goals for the next five years include the production of a pathogen glycan array, the development of high-throughput technologies for glycomics analysis, and the creation of a reagent bank. Both Paulson and NIGMS are aware that the consortium’s resources will be brimming with data at the end of this new grant. “The databases in particular will be at their peak utility at the end of the next five years,” predicts Paulson. Part of the grant application required the group to submit an “evergreening” plan which would ensure that the fruits of the consortium’s labors remain long after the money’s gone, says Paulson. This way, the data stays available to other investigators, the public, and anyone else with a sweet tooth for glycomics.

— Matthew Dublin

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