CAMBRIDGE, Mass -- MIT researchers report a powerful new tool for studying complex sugars, or polysaccharides, materials that are the focus of a hot new field in biology and that have recently been shown to play key roles in processes from viral infection to tissue development. The tool, which the researchers will describe in the October 15 issue of Science, is a technique for determining the linear order of building blocks in complex sugars.
Similar sequencing techniques for DNA and proteins have allowed scientists to understand the functions of those materials--and have led to Nobel prizes and been instrumental in shaping the biotechnology industry.
Among other advantages, the new sequencing technique could be automated and is extremely fast. The researchers took one day to sequence an important sugar whose order of building blocks had already been partially deciphered by others--over several months.
The work is particularly key to the burgeoning field of glycosaminoglycans, or GAGs, complex sugars in the web of material that surrounds cells. "Historically, these sugars were thought to be useless inert material outside cells," said Ram Sasisekharan, an assistant professor in the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH) and leader of the MIT team.
However, he said, "work over the last few years has changed this notion. Now they're known to be very active molecules that orchestrate how signals from outside the cell are processed and perceived by the cell." Professor Sasisekharan's laboratory is responsible for some of these insights.
Yet "our understanding of complex sugars to date is only the tip of the iceberg," Professor Sasisekharan said. "We are where scientists were in the early stages for nucleic acids (the building blocks of DNA)."
That's due in part to the lack of an easy way to sequence the sugars. "Once you
have the sequence of building blocks for a given polysaccharide, you can s
Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology