Carbohydrates have fundamental roles throughout biology, yet they have not been as well studied as proteins and nucleic acids, in part due to limitations in the experimental tools. Improved methods for studying glycans could spur significant advances in the understanding and application of glycobiology. The use of affinity reagents, such as lectins and glycan-binding antibodies, is a valuable complement to methods involving mass spectrometry and chromatography. This article addresses two limitations that have prevented the broader experimental use of glycan-binding proteins: sensitivity and availability. The sensitivity limitation stems from the poor affinity that many glycan-binding proteins have as isolated analytical reagents. To address this problem, I propose making use of multivalent interactions between lectins and glycans, mimicking those frequently found in the biological setting. Recent experiments show that a practical technique for producing lectin multimers can significantly improve detection sensitivity. The second limitation, availability, is the difficulty of finding and obtaining glycan-binding proteins that recognize less common or arbitrarily defined glycan structures. To address this problem, I propose translating the wealth of existing glycan array data into a quantitative, searchable database of the specificities of glycan-binding proteins. Such a resource would allow us to more easily identify proteins with defined specificities and perform detailed comparisons between reagents. Solutions to these two limitations could lead to the more effective use of, and a broader range of, glycan-binding reagents.
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