Biological roles of glycans

Glycobiology. 2017 Jan;27(1):3-49. doi: 10.1093/glycob/cww086. Epub 2016 Aug 24.


Simple and complex carbohydrates (glycans) have long been known to play major metabolic, structural and physical roles in biological systems. Targeted microbial binding to host glycans has also been studied for decades. But such biological roles can only explain some of the remarkable complexity and organismal diversity of glycans in nature. Reviewing the subject about two decades ago, one could find very few clear-cut instances of glycan-recognition-specific biological roles of glycans that were of intrinsic value to the organism expressing them. In striking contrast there is now a profusion of examples, such that this updated review cannot be comprehensive. Instead, a historical overview is presented, broad principles outlined and a few examples cited, representing diverse types of roles, mediated by various glycan classes, in different evolutionary lineages. What remains unchanged is the fact that while all theories regarding biological roles of glycans are supported by compelling evidence, exceptions to each can be found. In retrospect, this is not surprising. Complex and diverse glycans appear to be ubiquitous to all cells in nature, and essential to all life forms. Thus, >3 billion years of evolution consistently generated organisms that use these molecules for many key biological roles, even while sometimes coopting them for minor functions. In this respect, glycans are no different from other major macromolecular building blocks of life (nucleic acids, proteins and lipids), simply more rapidly evolving and complex. It is time for the diverse functional roles of glycans to be fully incorporated into the mainstream of biological sciences.

Keywords: biological roles; evolution; glycans.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Glycosylation
  • Humans
  • Lipids / genetics
  • Nucleic Acids / genetics
  • Polysaccharides / chemistry*
  • Polysaccharides / genetics
  • Polysaccharides / metabolism*
  • Proteins / genetics


  • Lipids
  • Nucleic Acids
  • Polysaccharides
  • Proteins