Infection's Sweet Tooth: How Glycans Mediate Infection and Disease Susceptibility

Trends Microbiol. 2018 Feb;26(2):92-101. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2017.09.011. Epub 2017 Oct 24.


Glycans form a highly variable constituent of our mucosal surfaces and profoundly affect our susceptibility to infection and disease. The diversity and importance of these surface glycans can be seen in individuals who lack a functional copy of the fucosyltransferase gene, FUT2. Representing around one-fifth of the population, these individuals have an altered susceptibility to many bacterial and viral infections and diseases. The mediation of host-pathogen interactions by mucosal glycans, such as those added by FUT2, is poorly understood. We highlight, with specific examples, important mechanisms by which host glycans influence infection dynamics, including by: acting as pathogen receptors (or receptor-decoys), promoting microbial stability, altering the physical characteristics of mucus, and acting as immunological markers. We argue that the effect glycans have on infection dynamics has profound implications for many aspects of healthcare and policy, including clinical management, outbreak control, and vaccination policy.

Keywords: FUT2; glycosyltransferase; infection susceptibility; microbiota; viral infection.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adhesins, Bacterial
  • Antibodies
  • Bacteria / pathogenicity
  • Bacterial Infections
  • Communicable Diseases
  • Disease Susceptibility*
  • Fucosyltransferases / genetics
  • Fucosyltransferases / metabolism*
  • Galactoside 2-alpha-L-fucosyltransferase
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Humans
  • Microbiota
  • Mucus / immunology
  • Mucus / metabolism
  • Mucus / microbiology
  • Polysaccharides / immunology*
  • Polysaccharides / metabolism*
  • Virus Diseases


  • Adhesins, Bacterial
  • Antibodies
  • Polysaccharides
  • Fucosyltransferases