• adhesion;
  • bioinformatics;
  • drug design;
  • glycosylation;
  • lectins;
  • molecular modeling;
  • NMR spectroscopy


A high-density coding system is essential to allow cells to communicate efficiently and swiftly through complex surface interactions. All the structural requirements for forming a wide array of signals with a system of minimal size are met by oligomers of carbohydrates. These molecules surpass amino acids and nucleotides by far in information-storing capacity and serve as ligands in biorecognition processes for the transfer of information. The results of work aiming to reveal the intricate ways in which oligosaccharide determinants of cellular glycoconjugates interact with tissue lectins and thereby trigger multifarious cellular responses (e.g. in adhesion or growth regulation) are teaching amazing lessons about the range of finely tuned activities involved. The ability of enzymes to generate an enormous diversity of biochemical signals is matched by receptor proteins (lectins), which are equally elaborate. The multiformity of lectins ensures accurate signal decoding and transmission. The exquisite refinement of both sides of the protein–carbohydrate recognition system turns the structural complexity of glycans—a demanding but essentially mastered problem for analytical chemistry—into a biochemical virtue. The emerging medical importance of protein–carbohydrate recognition, for example in combating infection and the spread of tumors or in targeting drugs, also explains why this interaction system is no longer below industrial radarscopes. Our review sketches the concept of the sugar code, with a solid description of the historical background. We also place emphasis on a distinctive feature of the code, that is, the potential of a carbohydrate ligand to adopt various defined shapes, each with its own particular ligand properties (differential conformer selection). Proper consideration of the structure and shape of the ligand enables us to envision the chemical design of potent binding partners for a target (in lectin-mediated drug delivery) or ways to block lectins of medical importance (in infection, tumor spread, or inflammation).