GlycoMIP nurtures new research community around glycomaterials
Linda Caudill believes the building of a research facility to study one of life’s critical building blocks is a milestone that bears repeating.
“We have created from scratch a unique, high-quality set of laboratories that support the needs of the evolving glycomaterials community,” said Caudill, managing director for the GlycoMIP program at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.
Produced by every living organism, glycomaterials contain chains of sugars called glycans that have critical roles for physiology and disease. In addition, their natural abundance and unique material properties have offered new capabilities to use these glycans as materials with utility in commercial and industrial applications. Efforts to chemically modify glycans have expanded their functionality and paved the way for an entire field of research focused on glycomaterial design and analysis.
One of the four building blocks of life — glycans, proteins, lipids and nucleic acids — glycans are often considered the most challenging to study because the tools for synthesizing and analyzing them lag decades behind other areas. The diversity of glycan structures and the often complex relationship between a glycan’s structure and its properties make the field of glycomaterials research particularly challenging. However, it holds the promise of significant advancements and discoveries that can positively impact society.
These impacts already are being realized as GlycoMIP researchers generate new glycomaterial bioplastics to replace nonbiodegradable plastics, identify new approaches for unnatural glycan synthesis, and build an online public platform to access and store glycomaterials data.
Launched in April 2021 with the support of a National Science Foundation $23 million grant, GlycoMIP is a multi-university platform where members of the materials research community share tools, samples, data, software, and know-how for the collective advancement of glycomaterials science and technology.
“Our vision for GlycoMIP is to bring together leading experts from the fields of materials and glycoscience for the development of new glycomaterials,” said Maren Roman, director of GlycoMIP and associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Headquartered in Virginia Tech’s Steger Hall, GlycoMIP is one of four Materials Innovation Platform programs in the United States and includes a collaboration with the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center as well as research partnerships with Brandeis University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In just over two years, GlycoMIP’s user facilities have supported more than 85 user projects, 49 of which support 33 principal investigators at academic institutions outside of Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia and the private sector. GlycoMIP has been cited more than 169 times in more than 60 research publications and oversaw numerous student-focused programs to support future generations of glycomaterials scientists.
Virginia Tech already was building momentum in this area when the National Science Foundation awarded the grant to Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia in summer 2020. The boost helped expand the effort to its current multi-university, multi-location status, which allowed for state-of-the art equipment to be available to interested researchers regardless of university affiliation.
Cassandra Callmann, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, has seen her research accelerated through GlycoMIP’s resources — especially with respect to the analysis of the synthetic glycopolymers that her lab makes.
“Access to GlycoMIP’s microscale thermophoresis instrument has enabled us to rapidly analyze the binding interactions between our materials and lectins of interest,” Callmann said. “Without the help of GlycoMIP and the support of technical manager Ryan Porell, we would not be this close to publication of our first manuscript as we are now, as the data is critical to our project.”
GlycoMIP users also benefit from expertise and equipment dedicated to glycomaterials synthesis, characterization, and modeling. The instruments, which are housed at both Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia, provide access to tools previously not available or unaffordable to those interested in such instrumentation.
For Brandon Jutras, associate professor of biochemistry, the on-site facilities in Steger Hall have been invaluable to his research team in tackling the challenges of bacterial glycobiology associated with Lyme disease.
“This resource gives direct access for students and trainees to world-class analytical equipment, some of which only exists here at the GlycoMIP facility,” Jutras said.
Equally crucial to assisting researchers is the platform’s mission to help train and support students.
One of these efforts is the GlycoMIP summer school, where scientists from academia, private sector, and national labs have the opportunity to work alongside their peers for a week at the Virginia Tech user facility. The university recently hosted its second in-person summer school, attracting more than 30 participants.
“It’s a unique combination of lectures, hands-on lab demonstrations, and activities focused on analyzing/understanding data, as well as understanding the materials being evaluated and characterized,” Caudill said. “It truly builds a user community.”
Callmann, who had three of her graduate students participate in this year’s summer school, has seen the impact it has had in both their research productivity and depth of research questions explored.
“They came back with a fresh perspective on glycoscience and a deeper understanding of carbohydrates in general,” said Callmann. “In addition, they had the opportunity to network with other graduate students from across the country, which is helpful for their professional development and hopefully build some long-lasting connection with other young scientists.”
A complementary GlycoMIP summer school featuring the facilities at the University of Georgia will occur in September, where the focus will be on user facility instruments for mass spectrometry, biolayer interferometry and modeling, as well as NMR of glycans.