Chemical remodelling of cell surfaces in living animals

Nature. 2004 Aug 19;430(7002):873-7. doi: 10.1038/nature02791.


Cell surfaces are endowed with biological functionality designed to mediate extracellular communication. The cell-surface repertoire can be expanded to include abiotic functionality through the biosynthetic introduction of unnatural sugars into cellular glycans, a process termed metabolic oligosaccharide engineering. This technique has been exploited in fundamental studies of glycan-dependent cell-cell and virus-cell interactions and also provides an avenue for the chemical remodelling of living cells. Unique chemical functional groups can be delivered to cell-surface glycans by metabolism of the corresponding unnatural precursor sugars. These functional groups can then undergo covalent reaction with exogenous agents bearing complementary functionality. The exquisite chemical selectivity required of this process is supplied by the Staudinger ligation of azides and phosphines, a reaction that has been performed on cultured cells without detriment to their physiology. Here we demonstrate that the Staudinger ligation can be executed in living animals, enabling the chemical modification of cells within their native environment. The ability to tag cell-surface glycans in vivo may enable therapeutic targeting and non-invasive imaging of changes in glycosylation during disease progression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Azides / metabolism
  • Azides / pharmacology
  • Blotting, Western
  • Cell Communication
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Disease Progression
  • Glycosylation
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neuraminidase / metabolism
  • Oligosaccharides / analysis
  • Oligosaccharides / chemistry
  • Oligosaccharides / metabolism*
  • Spleen / cytology*
  • Spleen / metabolism*


  • Azides
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Neuraminidase