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Gabius, Hans-Joachim (2018): The sugar code: Why glycans are so important. In: Biosystems, Vol. 164: pp. 102-111
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The cell surface is the platform for presentation of biochemical signals that are required for intercellular communication. Their profile necessarily needs to be responsive to internal and external factors in a highly dynamic manner. The structural features of the signals must meet the criterion of high-density information coding in a minimum of space. Thus, only biomolecules that can generate many different oligomers ('words') from few building blocks ('letters') qualify to meet this challenge. Examining the respective properties of common biocompounds that form natural oligo- and polymers comparatively, starting with nucleotides and amino acids (the first and second alphabets of life), comes up with sugars as clear frontrunner. The enzymatic machinery for the biosynthesis of sugar chains can indeed link monosaccharides, the letters of the third alphabet of life, in a manner to reach an unsurpassed number of oligomers (complex carbohydrates or glycans). Fittingly, the resulting glycome of a cell can be likened to a fingerprint. Conjugates of glycans with proteins and sphingolipids (glycoproteins and glycolipids) are ubiquitous in Nature. This implies a broad (patho)physiologic significance. By looking at the signals. at the writers and the erasers of this information as well as its readers and ensuing consequences, this review intends to introduce a broad readership to the principles of the concept of the sugar code.