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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

Introduction to glycopathology: the concept, the tools and the perspectives

Hans-Joachim Gabius1* and Klaus Kayser2

Author Affiliations

1 Chair of Physiological Chemistry, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Veterinärstr 13, D-80539, Munich, Germany

2 UICC-TPCC, Institut für Pathologie, Charite, Charite Platz 1, 10118, Berlin, Germany

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Diagnostic Pathology 2014, 9:4  doi:10.1186/1746-1596-9-4

Published: 20 January 2014

Abstract

Virtual slides

The virtual slides for this article can be found here: http://www.diagnosticpathology.diagnomx.eu/vs/1670639891114983 webcite.

Analyzing the flow of biological information is a fundamental challenge for basic sciences. The emerging results will then lend themselves to the development of new approaches for medical applications. Toward this end, the products of protein/lipid glycosylation deserve special attention. The covalent attachment of sugars to these carriers means much more than just a change of the carriers’ physicochemical properties. In principle, the ubiquitous presence of glycoconjugates and the close inspection of the particular structural ‘talents’ of carbohydrates provide suggestive evidence for information coding by sugars. In fact, the theoretical number of ‘words’ (oligomers) formed by ‘letters’ (monosaccharides) is by far higher than by using nucleotides or amino acids. In other words, glycans harbor an unsurpassed coding capacity. The cyto- and histochemical detection of dynamic changes in the profile of cellular glycans (glycome, the equivalent of the proteome) by sugar receptors such as antibodies used as tools underscores the suitability of carbohydrates for such a task. The resulting staining patterns can be likened to a molecular fingerprint. By acting as ligand (counterreceptor) for endogenous receptors (tissue lectins), glycan epitopes become partners in a specific recognition pair, and the sugar-encoded information can then be translated into effects, e.g. in growth regulation. Of note, expression of both sides of such a pair, i.e. lectin and cognate glycan, can physiologically be orchestrated for optimal efficiency. Indeed, examples how to prevent autoimmune diseases by regulatory T cells and restrict carcinoma growth by a tumor suppressor attest occurrence of co-regulation. In consequence, these glycans have potential to establish a new class of functional biomarkers, and mapping presence of their receptors is warranted. In this review, the cyto- and histochemical methods, which contribute to explore information storage and transfer within the sugar code, are described. This introduction to the toolbox is flanked by illustrating the application of each type of tool in histopathology, with focus on adhesion/growth-regulating galectins. Together with an introduction to fundamental principles of the sugar code, the review is designed to guide into this field and to inspire respective research efforts.

Keywords:
Agglutinin; Glycobiology; Glycosylation; Lectin; Neoglycoconjugates