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Glycobiology. 1999 Aug;9(8):747-55.

Evolutionary considerations in relating oligosaccharide diversity to biological function.

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Glycobiology Program and UCSD Cancer Center, Divisions of Hematology-Oncology and Cellular and Molecular Medicine,University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0687, USA.


The oligosaccharide chains (glycans) attached to cell surface and extracellular proteins and lipids are known to mediate many important biological roles. However, for many glycans, there are still no evident functions that are of obvious benefit to the organism that synthesizes them. There is also no clear explanation for the extreme complexity and diversity of glycans that can be found on a given glycoconjugate or cell type. Based on the limited information available about the scope and distribution of this diversity among taxonomic groups, it is difficult to see clear trends or patterns consistent with different evolutionary lineages. It appears that closely related species may not necessarily share close similarities in their glycan diversity, and that more derived species may have simpler as well as more complex structures. Intraspecies diversity can also be quite extensive, often without obvious functional relevance. We suggest one general explanation for these observations, that glycan diversification in complex multicellular organisms is driven by evolutionary selection pressures of both endogenous and exogenous origin. We argue that exogenous selection pressures mediated by viral and microbial pathogens and parasites that recognize glycans have played a more prominent role, favoring intra- and interspecies diversity. This also makes it difficult to appreciate and elucidate the specific endogenous roles of the glycans within the organism that synthesizes them.

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