Shape-shifting sugars pinned down

Jan 10, 2011
Shape-shifting sugars pinned down
Sugars maintain unusual chemical shapes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Edal Anton Lefterov.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Oxford University scientists have solved a 50-year-old puzzle about how, why or indeed if, sugar molecules change their shape.

Sugar molecules have long been known to adopt chemically unusual shapes but some scientists attributed this to the presence and influence of water or other substances. To test this theory, the Oxford researchers found a way of isolating the sugars from all other substances – by turning them into a gas - and then a method of monitoring their behaviour.

Their study, published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, reveals that the molecules maintained their unusual chemical appearance despite their isolation. The discovery could have implications for medicine but perhaps more readily for the manufacture of products currently reliant on waning supplies of oil.

Sugars are the most abundant organic molecules in the world.

Their metamorphosis was acknowledged by scientists in 1955 and the phenomenon named the anomeric effect. This was because of the unusual shape around the carbon atoms of molecules and to one carbon atom in particular called the anomeric centre.

‘Sugars are weird,’ Professor Ben Davis of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry, says. ‘The anomeric effect is fundamental to organic chemistry but until now, our understanding of it has been fairly limited. If sugars didn’t change shape, life would be radically different and some, perhaps many, biological processes just wouldn’t work anymore.’

To prove the anomeric effect existed, Professor Davis and his team of sugar chemists at Oxford worked with another Oxford research group lead by Professor John Simons, a co-author of the paper.

They isolated sugar molecules from all other substances. ‘We still saw the sugars’ unusual shape. Our results also support the idea that changes in groups attached to the sugars can moderate this effect.

‘This is a fundamental discovery and, because it applies to all sugars, could have very far reaching consequences.’

Chemicals can be built from and their availability is much greater than that of oil. Sugars are common in human diets but also make up plant and insect cells in the form of cellulose and chitin respectively.

‘Sugars could well be the future of making things,’ Professor Davis says. ‘We’re much less likely to run out of sugars and it might be possible to replace oil in the manufacture of, say, plastics or drugs with sugars. In principle, chemists can make almost any organic molecule and so anything you can make from oil you should be able to make from sugars.’

The implications for medicine could be equally significant but will need much additional research. Much less is understood about sugars than other molecules such as DNA and proteins. ‘Translating sugar biology into medicine is the last frontier of biology,’ Professor Davis says, ‘but the rewards if we do could be huge.’

Explore further: Smartgels are thicker than water

Related Stories

All viruses 'can be DNA stowaways'

Nov 19, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- 'Fossil viruses' preserved inside the DNA of mammals and insects suggest that all viruses, including relatives of HIV and Ebola, could potentially be ‘stowaways’ transmitted from ...

Volunteers to hunt for 'lost planets'

Dec 20, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The public are being asked to help Oxford University astronomers find planets orbiting other stars which may have been 'lost' in the data from over 100,000 stars. Volunteers could even find ...

Speech monitoring could track Parkinson's

Nov 17, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The severity of Parkinson's disease symptoms could be accurately monitored remotely through analysing a patient's speech patterns, a new Oxford University study suggests.

Chemically squeezing every drop of ethanol from corn

Mar 09, 2006

Brent Shanks is going down to the molecules to find a little extra ethanol. Shanks, an Iowa State University associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, is leading a research team that's working to develop ...

35,000 new species 'sitting in cupboards'

Dec 07, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Of 70,000 species of flowering plants yet to be described by scientists, more than half may already have been collected but are lying unknown and unrecognised in collections around the world, ...

Recommended for you

Smartgels are thicker than water

Sep 19, 2014

Transforming substances from liquids into gels plays an important role across many industries, including cosmetics, medicine, and energy. But the transformation process, called gelation, where manufacturers ...

Separation of para and ortho water

Sep 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Not all water is equal—at least not at the molecular level. There are two versions of the water molecule, para and ortho water, in which the spin states of the hydrogen nuclei are different. ...

User comments : 0