Sugars are present everywhere in life, not only as sucrose that we know from candy and pastries. For instance, the sugar polymer cellulose, which is the main structural component in plants, is the most abundant organic polymer on Earth. However, sugars are not only present as structural components, but play key roles in many biological processes, including cell-cell communication, tumour growth and in the immune system. Cells are coated by sugars that are used to distinguish between our own cells and threats such as bacteria and viruses. There is a complex interplay between proteins and sugars, where certain proteins bind to sugars with high specificity.
Understanding protein-sugar interactions is crucial for development of therapies and drugs against many diseases, including cancer, immunological diseases and infections. Similarly, understanding of interactions between polysaccharides and enzymes that can be used for degradation is essential in order to utilize biomass for biofuels and biomaterials. Due to the urgent need for replacing petroleum with wood and other types of biomass as the main source of organic components in the chemical industry, there is a great demand for biotechnology to find the most efficient enzymes for biorefineries.
My research is focused on sugars and their interactions with proteins and enzymes, where details about their interactions will enable engineering of better medical treatments or more efficient enzymes. I am using a biophysical technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which can reveal molecular interactions with atomic resolution or even 3D structures of molecules in solution. Studies on interactions between proteins and sugars are complicated and a main goal of my research is to develop improved NMR methods that can give greater detail about the interactions. This approach aims to maximize NMR techniques to solve problems related to sugar interactions and degradation of polysaccharides. My lecture presents these research ideas in parallel with a journey from the monosaccharides that are the sugar building blocks in nature, to oligosaccharides binding to proteins in very specific ways, further on to large polysaccharides, and back again to smaller sugars through enzymatic degradation.