Mass Spectrometry of Complex Carbohydrates

The structure of N-linked glycans, a complex mixture of oligosaccharides made from only a few types of building blocks, can be determined by deconstructing them in mass spectrometry. Starting from the left, an oligosaccharide is broken down into smaller pieces by removing one monosaccharide at a time. The overlaid structure shows a fully fucosylated and sialylated tetraantennary glycan.

Complex Carbohydrates: Improvements in methods, standards, and software are still needed to move mass spec analysis of carbohydrates into the mainstream.

Carbohydrates are ubiquitous. They densely carpet cell surfaces. They are the main component of the extracellular matrix that surrounds cells. They are involved in many aspects of cell-cell ­communication.

Glycans, a type of carbohydrate, are “the first thing a signaling molecule encounters when it contacts a cell,” says Robert J. Linhardt, a biochemist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who studies carbohydrate structure and function. “They’re the first thing a virus encounters when it infects a cell.” As many as 80% of human proteins are thought to be decorated with carbohydrates, he notes.

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