Glycosphingolipids: synthesis and functions



Glycosphingolipids (GSLs) comprise a heterogeneous group of membrane lipids formed by a ceramide backbone covalently linked to a glycan moiety. Hundreds of different glycans can be linked to tens of different ceramide molecules, giving rise to an astonishing variety of structurally different compounds, each of which has the potential for a specific biological function. GSLs have been suggested to modulate membrane-protein function and to contribute to cell–cell communication. Although GSLs are dispensable for cellular life, they are indeed collectively required for the development of multicellular organisms, and are thus considered to be key molecules in ‘cell sociology’. Consequently, the GSL make-up of individual cells is highly dynamic and is strictly linked to the cellular developmental and environmental state. In the present review, we discuss some of the available knowledge, open questions and future perspectives relating to the study of GSL biology.