The logic of automated glycan assembly

Acc Chem Res. 2015 May 19;48(5):1450-63. doi: 10.1021/ar5004362. Epub 2015 Apr 14.


Carbohydrates are the most abundant biopolymers on earth and part of every living creature. Glycans are essential as materials for nutrition and for information transfer in biological processes. To date, in few cases a detailed correlation between glycan structure and glycan function has been established. A molecular understanding of glycan function will require pure glycans for biological, immunological, and structural studies. Given the immense structural complexity of glycans found in living organisms and the lack of amplification methods or expression systems, chemical synthesis is the only means to access usable quantities of pure glycan molecules. While the solid-phase synthesis of DNA and peptides has become routine for decades, access to glycans has been technically difficult, time-consuming and confined to a few expert laboratories. In this Account, the development of a comprehensive approach to the automated synthesis of all classes of mammalian glycans, including glycosaminoglycans and glycosylphosphatidyl inositol (GPI) anchors, as well as bacterial and plant carbohydrates is described. A conceptual advance concerning the logic of glycan assembly was required in order to enable automated execution of the synthetic process. Based on the central glycosidic bond forming reaction, a general concept for the protecting groups and leaving groups has been developed. Building blocks that can be procured on large scale, are stable for prolonged periods of time, but upon activation result in high yields and selectivities were identified. A coupling-capping and deprotection cycle was invented that can be executed by an automated synthesis instrument. Straightforward postsynthetic protocols for cleavage from the solid support as well as purification of conjugation-ready oligosaccharides have been established. Introduction of methods to install selectively a wide variety of glycosidic linkages has enabled the rapid assembly of linear and branched oligo- and polysaccharides as large as 30-mers. Fast, reliable access to defined glycans that are ready for conjugation has given rise to glycan arrays, glycan probes, and synthetic glycoconjugate vaccines. While an ever increasing variety of glycans are accessible by automated synthesis, further methodological advances in carbohydrate chemistry are needed to make all possible glycans found in nature. These tools begin to fundamentally impact the medical but also materials aspects of the glycosciences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Automation*
  • Molecular Structure
  • Polysaccharides / chemical synthesis*
  • Polysaccharides / chemistry


  • Polysaccharides