“How can we make carbohydrate structures visible in a living cell?” asks Prof. Valentin Wittmann. There are genetic methods for marking proteins in cells, but these techniques founder when it comes to carbohydrates. Wittmann developed an elegant method to perform this task: he modifies sugar molecules with unusual functional groups, “feeds” them to cells, and is thus able to mark glycoproteins and glycolipids in the cell and colour them with fluorescent dyes. This opens the door to research on decrypting the biological functions of carbohydrates.
The Wittmann Group is particularly interested in the role of carbohydrates in biological recognition processes, such as the processes involved in cell adhesion. The Group studies multivalent interactions between carbohydrates and proteins. “When a number of ligands and receptors interact simultaneously, it leads to a disproportionately high gain in affinity. We study these processes mechanistically,” Wittmann explains. To this purpose, his team develops artificial multivalent ligands which have great potential for inhibiting viruses, bacteria and toxins, as well as potential in the field of diagnosis.