Campus News Science & Technology

UGA receives $7 million NIH grant to study building blocks of life

Athens, Ga. – A team of senior researchers at the University of Georgia have received a five-year $7.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help better understand one of the most fundamental building blocks of life.

They are tiny chains of sugar molecules called glycans, and they cover the surface of every living cell in the human body-providing the necessary machinery for those cells to communicate, replicate and survive. But they’re not all good. Glycans support the function of all cells, including those that cause cancer, viral and bacterial infections, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.

This makes them an attractive target for new treatments, and the experiments supported by this grant promise to speed the development of new, more effective therapies for many of humanity’s most insidious diseases and increase our understanding of the body’s most basic cellular functions.

“We know that glycans are involved in almost every aspect of health and disease, but we need to figure out what controls glycan behavior-the machinery that creates glycans and places them on the surface of cells,” said Geert-Jan Boons, the principal investigator for the project and researcher at UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center.

Scientists estimate that there are more than 7,000 unique glycan structures in human cells, but they do not yet have a strong understanding of the processes involved in creating this vast diversity. The UGA team has therefore made identifying and describing the various enzymes that drive glycan formation a central priority of their research.

Co-principal investigator Kelley Moremen has developed a new method to generate these critical enzymes in the laboratory, which the entire research group will use in their experiments. This catalogue of enzymes will give researchers new insights into glycan formation, and the processes involved in disease development.

“If we can figure out this machinery, we can discover ways to interfere with it, which opens the door for new therapeutics,” Moremen said.

The entire research team is composed of five professors from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. They are: Geert-Jan Boons, Franklin Professor of chemistry; Kelley Moremen, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; James Prestegard, professor and GRA Eminent Scholar of chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology; Richard Steet, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; and Lance Wells, associate professor and GRA Distinguished Investigator of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Research for this grant will be conducted at UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. Founded at the University of Georgia in 1985, it is one of only three centers worldwide dedicated to the study of complex carbohydrates, which play critical roles in cellular communication, gene expression, immunology, organism defense mechanisms, growth and development.

The 140,000-square-foot facility is home to 17 interdisciplinary research groups, including four federally designated centers for carbohydrate research. In addition to UGA research projects, the center also provides analytical services and training to university, government and industrial scientists interested in complex carbohydrate molecules. For more information about the center, see

The project is funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health under award number P01 GM107012-01.