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University of Wisconsin-Madison

New NSF Grant Will Improve Synthesis of Bacterial Carbohydrates

Weiping Tang in his lab
Weiping Tang, professor in the School of Pharmacy's Pharmaceutical Sciences Division.

The funding will help Professor Weiping Tang develop novel chemical methods to synthesize bacterial carbohydrates for studies of biology and disease

By Jill Sakai

The bacteria in, on, and around our bodies play a huge role in our health — not only in infectious disease, but also in metabolism, inflammation, and immune responses. Many of the interactions between bacteria and human cells are mediated by the various carbohydrate molecules dotting bacterial cell surfaces.

“They are related to all our body’s systems and to almost every disease we have,” says Weiping Tang, professor and Janis Apinis Professor in the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy’s Pharmaceutical Sciences Division.

With a new grant from the National Science Foundation, Tang will be working on novel strategies for synthesizing these bacterial carbohydrates to facilitate studies related to human health and disease as well as basic biological questions, such as how cells communicate and interact.

Carbohydrates, along with proteins and nucleic acids, are the main macromolecular building blocks of living things. But despite their abundance and importance, carbohydrates are relatively less understood than the other macromolecules.

 “We don’t really know much about carbohydrates because of their complexity,” Tang says. Humans make about 10 common sugars — such as glucose and ribose — which can combine in different ways to make a diverse array of useful carbohydrates. But in bacteria, the challenge takes on a dizzying scale: Bacteria use more than 600 different sugar building blocks. And unlike the common human sugars, most bacterial sugars aren’t available for purchase from a chemical supply company — they must be synthesized from scratch.

The new grant will support work in Tang’s lab to develop systematic methods to streamline production of the basic sugar building blocks and efficiently link them into complex polymers with desired structures.

 “As chemists, we see huge potential there,” Tang says. “Until chemists can quickly make bacterial carbohydrates from simple, common starting materials, biological processes that involve bacterial carbohydrates will remain poorly understood.”