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York leads the way in carbohydrate research

Posted on 13 October 2014

Chemists at the University of York have secured funding to purchase ground-breaking equipment that will transform glycoscience in the UK.

The York Structural Biology Laboratory (YSBL) in the University’s Department of Chemistry will purchase the UK's first automated carbohydrate synthesiser thanks to a £320,000 grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Carbohydrates, or sugars, are complex bio-molecules that play key roles in a myriad of biological processes, and are involved in the cause of many major diseases.  Glycoscience is a broad term used for all research and technology involving carbohydrates, ranging from cell biology, human nutrition and medicine, to carbohydrate-based materials and the conversion of carbohydrates into energy.

Dr Martin Fascione, of YSBL, co-ordinated a consortium bid for the ‘Glyconeer’ project, headed by leading carbohydrate chemist Professor Gideon Davies (YSBL). The project involves the Departments of Chemistry and Biology at York and scientists at the universities of Leeds, Oxford, Liverpool, Manchester and Imperial College London.

Research in this important field is limited due to the synthesis of complex sugars, which can exist in multiple forms and be linked in an almost limitless number of ways.  While research into DNA and protein function has benefited from widespread access to synthesisers - machines which can be easily programmed to produce any sequence of DNA or amino acids - carbohydrates have lagged behind because of their complexity.  Now, technology advances have finally resulted in a commercially available carbohydrate synthesiser with the capability to transform the field of glycoscience in a similar way.

Dr Fascione said: “Sugars are the most abundant and biologically important molecules on earth, but are also considered the most difficult to work with. This is primarily because of their complexity and the challenges posed by their chemical synthesis. The ‘Glyconeer’ will provide York and the UK with a new weapon to tackle these challenges, and place us at the forefront of a new wave of glycoscience research.”

The potential research use of this new technology includes biopharmaceuticals, as 80 percent of the top-selling drugs worldwide are glycoproteins, and prebiotic foods that are designed to optimise human gut health. Other uses will include research into antimicrobials, targeting cell surface recognition and biosynthesis, and progress with materials and energy, from biorenewable polysaccharides to the transformation of biomass into biofuel.

The ‘Glyconeer’ will be located in the Department of Chemistry, in a laboratory Dr Fascione shares with Dr Alison Parkin, a co-investigator on the bid. In partnership with some of the UK’s leading glycoscientists, Dr Fascione will manage and co-ordinate the use and application of the machine nationally.  It is anticipated that easy access to complex sugars will reinforce the UK’s reputation as a world leader in glycoscience, and expand the University of York’s reputation as a centre of excellence in this field.

Notes to editors:

  • For further information about the York Structural Biology Laboratory (YSBL), visit:
  • For more information about the University of York’s Department of Chemistry, visit:
  • The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Its aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £484M in world-class bioscience in 2013-14. It supports research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people it funds are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. BBSRC investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. For more information about BBSRC, its science and impact see: For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: