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$23M NSF grant accelerates glycomaterials research

Alan Flurry

Glycomaterials are produced by every living organism. They contain chains of sugars, called glycans, that have critical roles in health and disease. Of the four building blocks of life — glycans, proteins, lipids and nucleic acids — glycans are the most complex and most challenging to understand. The tool set for understanding these glycans, so crucial to life itself, lags far behind those available for understanding DNA, RNA and proteins.

To accelerate glycomaterials research in the U.S., the National Science Foundation (NSF) has committed $23 million to a new multi-university partnership that will bring together leading scientists and engineers from the University of GeorgiaVirginia TechBrandeis UniversityRensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to establish an NSF Materials Innovation Platform called GlycoMIP focused on “Automating the Synthesis of Rationally Designed Glycomaterials.”

GlycoMIP will be one of only four NSF Materials Innovation Platforms — a special type of NSF facility, funded to stimulate scientific innovation in materials research and further the vision of the federal Materials Genome Initiative to “discover, manufacture, and deploy advanced materials twice as fast, at a fraction of the cost.”

GlycoMIP will support computer-aided design and modeling of glycomaterials through a first-in-the-nation, virtual user facility that will leverage the CCRC’s sophisticated computer-modeling capabilities.

“The computational tools we have developed are uniquely suited to simulate the movements of shape-changing molecules that contain glycans, including hybrid molecules that contain other entities, such as proteins, lipids, nucleic acids or even synthetic polymers,” said Robert Woods, associate director of GlycoMIP and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and chemistry, at UGA.

GlycoMIP researchers will harness the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to make glycomaterial synthesis, modeling and data analysis more accessible to the scientific community and provide urgently needed resources to advance data science.


Image: Glycans are chains of sugars that have critical roles in health and disease. Here, a depiction of a glycan molecule is overlaid on a photograph of human cells. (Background photo by Katelyn Bittleman, Virginia Tech; foreground image by Robert Woods, University of Georgia)

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