The emerging functionality of endogenous lectins: A primer to the concept and a case study on galectins including medical implications

Hans Joachim Gabius*, Albert M. Wu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Biochemistry textbooks commonly make it appear that it is a foregone conclusion that the hardware of biological information storage and transfer is confined to nucleotides and amino acids, the letters of the genetic code. However, the remarkable talents of a third class of biomolecules are often overlooked. For example, one of them far surpasses the building blocks of nucleic acids and proteins in terms of theoretical coding capacity by oligomer formation. Although often exclusively assigned to duties in energy metabolism, carbohydrates as part of cellular glycoconjugates (glycoproteins, proteoglycans, glycolipids) have, in fact, other important tasks. Currently, they are increasingly gaining recognition as an operative high-density information coding system. An elaborate enzymatic machinery enables cells to be versatile enough to produce a glycan profile (glycome) that is as characteristic as a fingerprint. Moreover, swift modifications during dynamic processes, such as differentiation or malignant transformation, are readily possible. The translation of the information presented in oligosaccharide determinants to biological responses is carried out by lectins. Recognition of foreign glycosignatures in innate immunity, regulation of cell-cell/matrix interactions, cell migration or growth, and intra- and intercellular glycan routing etc represent physiologically far-reaching lectin-carbohydrate functionality. The classification of endogenous lectins is guided by sequence alignments and conservation of distinct structural traits. For example, a jelly-roll-like folding pattern and maintenance of key residue positioning involved in stacking and C-H/π-interactions as well as directional hydrogen bonds to the β-galactoside ligands are common denominators among galectins. Biochemical and biophysical studies are beginning to unravel the intricacies of the selection of a limited set of endogenous ligands, such as certain integrins or ganglioside GM1, and combined with biological cell experiments, its relevance for cell sociology, e.g. in growth regulation and tumor cell invasion or activated T cell apoptosis. Histopathological monitoring accompanies the biological cell investigations, linking expression of certain family members to tumor progression or suppression. Further insights into the functional consequences of the sugar code's translation are thus expected to have notable repercussions for diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-62
Number of pages26
JournalChang Gung Medical Journal
Issue number1 SPEC. ISS.
StatePublished - 01 2006


  • Agglutinin
  • Apoptosis
  • Drug design
  • Galectin
  • Glycoconjugate
  • Lectin
  • Metastasis
  • Sugar code


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