A $22.9 million NSF award fuels a revolutionary platform for glycan science
In the summer of 2020, a set of adjoining labs on the Virginia Tech campus was set aside with a vision for a new type of research facility that bridged gaps between biologists and engineers. Then, on August 1st, news came that the National Science Foundation had awarded nearly $23 million for a new NSF Materials Innovation Platform. The labs were destined to become the home base for this platform, known as GlycoMIP.
At the time, there were only two Materials Innovation Platforms (MIPs) in existence — now, with the simultaneous funding of GlycoMIP and BioPacificMIP in California, there would be four. MIP programs exist to elevate underdeveloped areas of scientific understanding by providing access to advanced facilities and expertise, and in the case of the two new MIPs, converge materials research with the biological sciences. By making state-of-the art equipment available to interested researchers, the MIPs serve as catalysts for breakthroughs in targeted scientific fields, and in doing so, training the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists.
GlycoMIP is unique in that it will not be limited to just the 2400 square feet of laboratory space at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute; it spans institutions, thanks to a powerful collaboration with the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (CCRC), and research partnerships with Brandeis University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Maren Roman, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, is the Director of GlycoMIP. “Our vision for GlycoMIP is to bring together leading experts from the fields of materials and glycoscience for the development of new glycomaterials,” says Roman. “We’ve strategically merged Virginia Tech's strengths in polymer and polysaccharide chemistry with world-leading expertise in glycan structure analysis and computational modeling at UGA, chemoenzymatic glycan synthesis at RPI and UNC, and machine learning approaches to glycoanalytics at Brandeis University. We are excited about these research collaborations and expect impactful scientific advances.”
The most abundant materials on our planet are composed of carbohydrates. These “glycomaterials” are integral to our daily lives, so much so that we tend to not even think about their presence and impact on society. Glycomaterials are foundational to any biological system, providing basic cell structure, as well as the means to communicate, adapt to environmental changes, and replicate. While at the societal level paper products may be considered the most widely used glycomaterials, one finds carbohydrate-based materials in almost everything we taste and touch. That said, due to the structural complexities of carbohydrates, the field of glycoscience is particularly challenging, yet it holds the promise of significant advancements and discoveries that can positively impact our society.
So how will GlycoMIP jump-start new innovations in glycomaterials? Perhaps the biggest step will be in providing a unique user program and services to scientists across academia and industry. These services include the synthesis and testing of materials samples, providing curated structure-property databases, as well as more in-depth collaborations on long-term projects that make use of the facilities.
Users of GlycoMIP will benefit from expertise and equipment dedicated to glycomaterials synthesis, characterization, and modeling. The equipment, which is housed at both Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia, provides access to state-of-the-art tools that were previously not available or unaffordable to those interested in such instrumentation.
One such item, a glycan synthesizer designed and manufactured in Germany, is the first of its kind to be installed in the United States. Access to automated glycan synthesis is one of the services that GlycoMIP is most enthusiastic about providing; these molecules are difficult to produce, which makes the ability to create them a major draw for the facility.
“Many researchers are in need of specific glycans but do not have the expertise or resources to prepare them,” explains Richard Helm, Virginia Tech Associate Professor of Biochemistry and GlycoMIP’s Director of Synthesis Services. “The availability of a tool to produce them will allow scientists to move deeper into their specific areas of research.”
Characterization services are also a big attraction; many different types of equipment, including computing facilities, are housed at Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia, both GlycoMIP-supported as well as synergistic equipment in other labs, allowing users to access a full suite of analytical techniques to meet their needs. The platform is also expanding greatly on an emerging emphasis in glycan modeling by integrating multiscale modeling, adding new focus areas, and providing more modeling and analysis capabilities from atomic- to mesoscale-level.
Although the user program and facilities will be open to scientists around the country, additional support will be available for successful proposals from non-R1 institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This is driven by the well-acknowledged need to increase diversity in the sciences, as well as to provide access to high-end resources to academics and students who might otherwise be unable to fully accomplish their research goals. A significant effort is already underway to diversify participation in GlycoMIP’s programs through direct connections with faculty outside R1 institutions.
In addition to the user program’s support of external scientists, GlycoMIP’s in-house research will propel glycomaterials science to the next level. A team of faculty from the MIP’s five collaborating institutions will push forward four lines of research, each dedicated to advancing capabilities in distinct but related areas, including: the discovery of new glycomaterials, the development of designer glycomaterials, the ability to recognize and characterize glycans, and the automation of glycan synthesis.
By developing new tools and methods for synthesizing, analyzing, and modeling glycomaterials, the team will continue to strengthen GlycoMIP’s capacity to facilitate advanced research. In this way, the platform is able to continually improve upon itself.
Robert Woods is a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Georgia, and is the Director of In-House Research for GlycoMIP. According to Woods, “Developing structure-function relationships for glycomaterials is essential for advancing the rational design of glycomaterials with defined or novel properties. We will achieve this by tightly integrating cutting-edge methods for 3D structure prediction, chemical synthesis, and characterization in a synergistic effort involving several teams of in-house researchers.”
Equally crucial to the platform’s mission is the training and support of students: the next generation of glycomaterials scientists. Whether attending an outreach event, visiting for a scientific collaboration, or conducting GlycoMIP research, students will enjoy access to state-of-the-art facilities and training.
The experiences students have with GlycoMIP will help them as they consider career paths that best meet their skills and interests. Connections with new collaborators and experts in the field will enrich their professional lives while simultaneously diversifying the research landscape, facilitating interdisciplinarity, and building a strong pool of eager and informed researchers who will move the discipline forward.
To enhance this process, the GlycoMIP Scholars program is being formed, with plans to engage guest speakers and host networking events for students.
“One of the best ways to build strong connections among students is through shared experiences,” says Program Coordinator Lauren Mills who will facilitate the GlycoMIP Scholar’s program. “Through the GlycoMIP Scholars program, we will expose students to a variety of glycomaterials-related research and career options. They will hear from professionals working in the field and be able to ask questions in a small-group setting. GlycoMIP Scholars will graduate having made connections that will serve them as they pursue their chosen career path.”
“The program will also support GlycoMIP's overarching goal of broadening participation in glycosciences,” she adds, “by attracting and supporting students from schools that might not have the resources to conduct this type of research. Attracting these students to connect and participate in research can have immeasurable impacts on their future potential.”
GlycoMIP provides office space for visiting researchers, with a dedicated work area for students. When graduate students, postdocs, and faculty come together in the same spaces, new collaborations and relationships can be born.
As GlycoMIP Managing Director Linda Caudill points out, “To this day, I have contact with people I shared office and lab space with during graduate school — you can never discount the value of those relationships. It’s the same sort of thing, bringing scientists and students into our GlycoMIP facilities, even for just a few days. They’ll talk with each other and perhaps exchange contact information. They’ll establish a connection.”
Collaborations are at the heart of what GlycoMIP has to offer (in addition, of course, to the state-of-the-art facilities and services). Many of the in-house research faculty are also members of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute (MII), a hub of polymer science and engineering at Virginia Tech. These affiliates bring expertise from Chemistry, Sustainable Biomaterials, Engineering, and beyond.
Robert B. Moore, Director of MII and a member of the GlycoMIP research team, says “Given the fundamental, polymeric nature of glycomaterials, and our institute’s mission of synergistic collaborations across disciplines, it is no surprise that MII was poised for this opportunity to provide a critical mass of researchers and educators with the precise expertise needed for impactful discoveries in this exciting field of biomacromolecules. We are tremendously proud of the entire GlycoMIP team, and we look forward to their pioneering innovations in glycomaterials for a healthy and sustainable future.”
GlycoMIP is still in the early days of its development, and there is much exciting progress still to be seen. Engagement from the scientific community will serve to strengthen this platform even further, as well as to spread the word so that GlycoMIP’s user program, research, and outreach can expand the horizons of as many glycomaterials scientists as possible.
Written by Reilly Henson