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Synthesis and mammalian cell compatibility of light-released glycan precursors for controlled metabolic engineering

Sugar additions to biomolecules, or glycans, are some of the most abundant biomolecule modifications in biology because they enable cells to adapt to changing nutrient and stress conditions. An unmet challenge for the field of glycobiology is the study of glycan biosynthetic pathways with chemical control, especially in live cell settings. The objective of this study was to create biocompatible glycan precursors with controlled release properties. Here, we report eleven “caged” sugar probes that release glycan biosynthetic precursor molecules upon light exposure. The specific sugar pathways we target with our probes regulate the addition of the N-acetyl sugars GlcNAc, GalNAc, and sialic acid onto biomolecules in cells, each of which has the potential to alter glycan processes involved in cell morphology, signaling, and behavior. We hypothesized that our glycan precursor probes would remain biologically inert until light-initiated decaging conditions were met, avoiding biological activities including metabolism and cytotoxicity. The photocaged analogs of GlcNAc, GalNAc, and ManNAc (sialic acid precursor) sugars, which we call “photo-sugars,” were released within minutes of light exposure at their optimal wavelengths. During the course of the study, we characterized the cell compatibility of these sugars under their respective decaging conditions, and found highly cell compatible GlcNAc, GalNAc, and ManNAc photocaged precursors. Release of GlcNAc-1-phosphate precursors led to altered ATP levels in cells, demonstrating preliminary metabolic engineering. We envision these probes as useful additions to the chemical glycobiology field that will enable spatiotemporal control over glycosylation pathways in living mammalian cells.

Publication date: 15/09/2022

Author: Courtney A. Kondor, Jaggaiah N. Gorantla, Garry D. Leonard, Charlie Fehl

Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870292.