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Varki A, Cummings RD, Esko JD, et al., editors. Essentials of Glycobiology. 2nd edition. Cold Spring Harbor (NY): Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press; 2009.

Cover of Essentials of Glycobiology

Essentials of Glycobiology. 2nd edition.

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La Jolla, California

There is a certain magic in doing something that has never been done before. Apart from the excitement and novelty of the endeavor, one knows that even a reasonable effort will be appreciated and that expectations are moderate. So it was with the first edition of this book, which arose from events described in the original preface. In 1999, working with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, a group of six researchers put together a reasonable summary of the state of the field of glycobiology, with the assistance of a few outside experts. Given the interests of the writers and the emphasis of the field in the 1990s, the first edition was somewhat vertebrate-centered, focusing mostly on the glycans of so-called “higher” organisms. But glycobiology is relevant to every living species. A remarkable universal finding in nature is that all cells of all species that have ever been studied are coated with a dense and complex array of glycans. Thus the evolution of life has resulted in repeated selection for the expression of glycans at cell surfaces and in extracellular spaces. This broad “dogma” is now expanded by the realization that glycans are also common in intracellular compartments.

In recognition of the wide expression of glycans, the Consortium of Glycobiology Editors decided to expand the book’s coverage by increasing the number of editors and by seeking involvement of an even broader range of experts. Of course, because of the obvious relevance to human health, there continues to be an emphasis on vertebrates, as seen in the symbol nomenclature on the inside front cover and in Figure 1.5, which emphasizes the monosaccharides of vertebrate systems. However, as exemplified by Figure 19.1 (inside back cover), we have also addressed the glycans of a variety of other taxa in nature. The addition of more contributors had many positive outcomes, including wider, more accurate, and more up-to-date coverage. However, the added complexity has lengthened the long gestation period for this edition. Nevertheless, the editors welcome the higher level of expectation and increased scrutiny this new edition deserves as an account of an increasingly important aspect of biology.

One truly novel innovation in the development of this edition is the collaboration with the National Library of Medicine/National Center for Biotechnology Information (NLM/NCBI). As indicated by NCBI Director David Lipman in the Foreword, this is a unique and historic effort involving a three-way collaboration among the Editors, the NCBI, and CSHL Press, led by John Inglis. Many of the textbooks on the NCBI Bookshelf were made available some time after they were published in print, as exemplified by the first edition of this book. This is explained by the assumption of editors and publishers that making full text available online might decrease interest in the print copy. However, print and online publication of some books reaches two, only partly overlapping audiences. So it is that this book is being simultaneously released online at NCBI and as a printed volume by the Press. This approach ensures that everyone, from the layperson to the high school student to the graduate student in a developing country, has free access to the knowledge the book contains, even while increasing awareness of the availability of a printed edition that may be more suitable for certain readers’ requirements. Added advantages to the NCBI connection will be searchability and the opportunity to add links to the numerous databases hosted at that site. We hope that this functionality will be developed gradually over time, while maintaining the core body of knowledge as a textbook for the advanced undergraduate or the interested graduate student. During the writing of the book it was tempting to insert many links to useful websites, but we quickly learned that, except for those at sites such as NCBI, such links change over time. Given the power of search engines these days, our listings of the full names of relevant sites should allow the reader to find them easily.

Regarding evolution and phylogeny, the classification of species is an ongoing enterprise for which there is still no final answer. Realizing that this nomenclature is in flux, we chose to use the Tree of Life at the University of Arizona, in combination with the phylogeny section of NCBI. To dispel the still prevalent notion that evolution is a purposeful process, we have also avoided the use of the term “design,” unless it is in relation to a human effort such as chemical synthesis. The common usage of the terms “higher” and “lower” to indicate species that are closer or more distant from humans has also been limited and, when used, stated in quotes. These incorrect terms arose from the outdated idea of the “great chain of being,” in which humans were felt to be at the apex of evolution. More appropriate terms are “recently evolved” and “ancient” species.

A major attempt has also been made to harmonize the artwork style throughout the book and very special thanks are due to Rick Cummings for working with Donna Boyd and the Press to ensure that this happened. Among the other Editors, special thanks are also due to Jeff Esko, who acted as a de facto Deputy Editor at many stages of the process, including a final review of most chapters as well as the production of the Study Guide, which was prepared with the input of trainees who took the Essentials course at UCSD in 2008. The contributions of the many co-authors and consultants were invaluable, and special mention is due to Nathan Sharon, who provided independent reviews of several chapters he had not written. Many individuals at the Press (Kaaren Janssen, Denise Weiss, Mary Cozza, Carol Brown, Rena Steuer, Kathleen Bubbeo, Catriona Simpson, Lauren Heller, and Jan Argentine), and at the NCBI (Jo McEntyre, Laura Dean, Belinda Beck, Marilu Hoeppner, and Jeff Beck) contributed major efforts. We are also deeply grateful to students and postdocs in our labs, who reviewed chapters and provided invaluable comments from the perspective of trainees. One of them, Dave Rabuka, even helped to draw many chemical structures and co-authored two chapters. Many thanks are also due to Melanie Nieze and Jeri Jenkins for coordinating the workflow from my office.

The field of glycobiology has undergone an enormous expansion since the first edition of this book was published, and the Editors were torn between providing information in sufficient depth for the expert or offering just the basics to interested readers from other specialties. We hope both communities of readers will find this a valuable resource for explorations of the fascinating world of glycans and their numerous roles in fields such as chemistry, evolution, biology, medicine, and biotechnology.

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Copyright © 2009, The Consortium of Glycobiology Editors, La Jolla, California.
Bookshelf ID: NBK1936


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