At the Max Planck Institute for Metal Research in Stuttgart, researchers are developing model systems that imitate the sugar coats of living cells. They hope to gain new insights into the regulation of biological functions and develop the system into a platform for biosensoric applications.
Richter is well aware of the huge challenges they face: “The hyaluronans form a kind of polymer network, the composition and function of which is still hardly known. It is also highly complex; up to thousand proteins can bind to a single hyaluronan molecule. We are planning to imitate parts of the biological system and hope that this will provide us with fundamental insights into the functional mechanism.”
The molecular arrangement of the hyaluronans and their binding partners is important for functions such as the regulation and control of cellular properties. Richter and his team are hoping that the model system will enable them to specifically investigate the interactions and eventually also control them. “We have plans to use the model as cell sensor in order to examine different processes such as adhesion and differentiation in cell cultures,” said Richter.
Since glycobiology in general, and even more so, the investigation of the cellular glycan coats is still a young field of research, Richter’s team faces many open questions but is in the comfortable position that the competition is not that stiff. “A lot of work is being done on the molecular structure of the hyaluronans and some groups are investigating specific phenomena on the cell and tissue level, but hardly anybody is combining the complex cell-biological level and the molecular approach,” said Richter who is combining these two approaches. Richter does not have to plough a lonely furrow, but has an excellent international network. He enjoys working with other groups who have complementary skills: “For example, we receive hyaluronan-binding molecules and valuable feedback from teams of biologists in Oxford and Manchester. Jennifer Curtis’ group in Atlanta supports us in the work on the comparison between model and cell systems.”