Human innate immune lectins that recognize microbial glycans can conduct microbial surveillance and thereby help prevent infection. Structural analysis of soluble lectins has provided invaluable insight into how these proteins recognize their cognate carbohydrate ligands and how this recognition gives rise to biological function. In this opinion, we cover the structural features of lectins that allow them to mediate microbial recognition, highlighting examples from the collectin, Reg protein, galectin, pentraxin, ficolin and intelectin families. These analyses reveal how some lectins (e.g., human intelectin-1) can recognize glycan epitopes that are remarkably diverse, yet still differentiate between mammalian and microbial glycans. We additionally discuss strategies to identify lectins that recognize microbial glycans and highlight tools that facilitate these discovery efforts.
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