Rare moments in scientific knowledge
A recently published article about the emergence of complex life from green algae in Swedish lakes, and the importance of smart sugar, prompted me to revisit the story of glycans. The leaps of knowledge about life, that lie ahead of us through glycobiology, is tantalizingly exciting. Glycobiology is sugar biology, and it is still the most poorly understood field of molecular biology because chemists found it sticky and difficult to see in structure. But glycobiology is gaining so much traction today, and it is bringing together my two favorite fields of research - ecology and human health - at the molecular and cellular level.
A secret sauce of life
Complex life on our planet, and much more than single-celled organisms, is made possible by long-chain sugars known as glycans. Glycans are not like table sugar, but they are sugars nonetheless. Glycans connect and organize cells to create organs and perform important cellular functions. Glycans connect and organize cells to create eyes that see and legs to run with. Glycans are the signals between cells that trigger our cellular responses to the world, fight off infections, reproduce sexually, and therefore survive in the oceans of life all around us.
No skin or bones without glycans
In my recent post I described a glycan in skin as hyaluronic acid and how our seaweed gel is a plant based mimic of that. Similarly, In the joint health article I explained how glycans like chondroitin sulfate and the smaller glucosamine are responsible for the compression power and movement in our knees that is so undervalued until we start to feel the loss of it.
Reproduction is really a navigation of sugars
Recent research is trying to identify the glycan shield around sperm on the dangerous journey that sperm have in finding an egg to fertilise. In all species there is super complex signaling, protective force fields, and difficult navigation in order to hone in on and impregnate the egg. In the case of sperm glycans, zinc is richly bound to and released from these sugars, hence the importance of zinc and glycans to fertility.
The sugar code
The glycome is the sugar matrix of life and it is the tail that wags the dog. We have been ignoring it for too long, just because it is colourless, sticky and complicated for chemists. In this way is is like the interstellar space across galaxies - full of dark mysterious stuff that we can't see or understand.
But as one scholar put's it, it is "high-density information coding in a minimum of space". This is your life's fingerprint; it's sugar code. The third alphabet of life after DNA and amino acids and the one that can code for the most complex information about what you are doing, how you are living and what how your health progresses in life.
In part your sugar code is driven by your DNA, and in part it is driven by your lifestyle choices. So better that you focus on good choices as the code is being created by your actions everyday, which means it is never to late to start improving on it. As usual, diet, sleep, exercise and mental stimulation are the most important ingredients.
Don't underestimate slime - it is your best defence
Historically, all of the liquidy, sticky, oozy things in nature, mucous, bodily fluids, slime – was regarded by chemists as just complex sticky stuff. Indeed when we were wounded, clinicians and scientists used to refer to the ooze that entered the wound from our bodies as interstitial fluid, the wet stuff between biology. But now we have come to realise that this wet stuff between cells is actually what we are mostly made of. It is controlled in part by our lymph system, which for a long time has come in second place compared to our blood system, and been regarded as a waste drain.
Nothing could be further from reality. Glycans are the secret force that is our signature of defence to the world. Your lymph system is the river of white blood that is your front line of defence. A lymph node is simply a reader of glycan signals. It is here that you immune system will mount a response to attack based on the glycan codes that are coming in from your body.
The invisible giants in the matrix that design the function of collagen
If there are glycan blueprints missing in someone's genetic coding, then there are some serious chronic diseases that arise, such as joint hyper-mobility or Ehrlers-Danlos Syndrome. We used to think that Ehrlers-Danlos syndrome was a disease of collagen malformation, that can lead to collapse of tissue structure and function, such as in the walls of our gut; however, it isn’t. It is lack of the glycan, dermatan sulfate, that is responsible for creating the structure of collagen.
Supporting our health
Now we understand a plethora of inherited and lifestyle disorders that are caused by a malfunction in one way or another by these core glycans, as well as thousands upon thousands of small glycan signatures. We need these signatures to work for us and if they don't it can lead to a reduced immune system, bipolar disorders, epilepsy and malformation of important tissues including the heart and kidneys. Doctors can inject glycans in certain instances if we need it, such as after my own personal trauma injuries of descalping required regular injections of heparin, the mostly highly charged and sulfated glycan, to keep the blood flowing while I healed.
Heparin is also being used in some trials, alongside seaweed glycans, to prevent Corona Virus invading our cells by sticking to it. Heparin and some seaweed gels are the most negatively charged molecules known, and these simply bind electrostatically to positively charge molecules of the virus. This is how we use our own supercharged seaweed molecules in our skin care range for stripping away impurities. Some surgeons are injecting hyaluronic acid into joints to try and prevent the progression of cartilage damage.
Our personalised signatures of life
Even our blood types, A, B and O, are indeed a signature of the glycome, that starts being coded at the level of the genome. What is even more amazing, is that the way we live our life will create more complex sugar codes and signatures than our genes ever will. These signatures can indicate our state of health now as a sugar code record of what we have been getting up to in our blood serum. For example, researchers have found over 18 glycan signatures that are related to Type II diabetes that could be used predict your susceptibility to developing diabetes before the onset of any symptoms. This is frontier stuff and there are exciting discoveries ahead.
Glycome for breakfast, lunch and dinner
We also need to eat a rich glycome. Indeed our whole gut ecosystem and important bacteria thrive on a diet of glycans from fruits (pectin), grains (beta-glucan), animal products (bone broth = glycan juice) and even the glycan excreted from our own gut cells. Fermented foods are also full of glycans that are created by the microbes, and it is in large part these that are beneficial for our health rather than the bacteria itself.
Similarly, our seaweed has a unique glycan that is so similar to that of human glycans which is why we decided to do clinical studies on it's effect in the gut. It is why a dose of Phybre in your morning oats will load you with a most diverse range of glycans for the day. Or our Phettuccine will make the glycan complexity of a Mediterranen diet shine. But bear in mind - all plants and foods have unique glycans, so a diversity of food equals a diversity of glycans and a diverse and vibrant gut ecosystem.
Appreciate your glycome today, with every step you take in life.