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Sweet Dreams

by Kathleen Cason


Intro  |  Charting the course   |  The team's beginnings   |  The pitch
Cross-country caravan   |  The gathering   |  Collaborations

CCRC Milestones



What started as a small idea between two friends has grown into one of the most successful research collaborations in the entire country.

On a fall day in 1983, Peter Albersheim and Alan Darvill met for afternoon tea at London’s exquisite Goring Hotel. The scientists welcomed the quiet break from hectic days on a consulting job.

Over warm scones and clotted cream, their conversation turned to their ongoing research back home at the University of Colorado.

They knew they were on to something — maybe something big.

Two decades have passed since Peter Albersheim (left) and Alan Darvill first discussed their dream of creating a research center to study complex carbohydrates. Now the pair regularly meets for lunch to discuss research and management of the UGA Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. (Food styling by Deborah Dykstra; Location courtesy of East West Bistro, Athens, GA)

Their research group had identified naturally occurring molecules that switched on an immune-like response in plants. Could this lead to new, environmentally friendly pesticides? That seemed to be an obvious possibility. But the discovery had much broader significance.

The molecular “on button” was a piece of complex carbohydrate. Unlike the carbohydrates in their scones, complex carbohydrates are large molecules made of sugars joined together as strings and complicated branches. It turned out that enzymes released in the heat of battle between plant and microbe snipped off a molecule from the cell walls that acted like a plant hormone, chemically alerting the plant to protect itself.

Signaling plant defenses was certainly an unexpected role for a carbohydrate and ran counter to scientific knowledge of the day. Until fairly recently, most scientists believed that carbohydrates only had two functions: to store energy (as starch in plants; as glycogen in animals) or provide structure (in the form of cellulose, connective tissue or fluid in eyeballs).

The idea that chemical messages were encrypted in complex carbohydrates seemed nearly unthinkable then. Some scientists even thought that Albersheim and Darvill’s results were anomalies. Little was known about other roles for carbohydrates in biology because few scientists dared tackle the subject, research methods were relatively primitive and the chemistry was difficult.

But Albersheim and Darvill trusted their findings. They predicted that similar carbohydrate molecules might regulate other biological processes in plants. Heparin, which prevents blood clotting, was one of the few known examples of a complex carbohydrate that controls a biological event. So perhaps, they reasoned, complex carbohydrates also carried messages for animal cells.

In 1983, Albersheim and Darvill could not have foreseen that studying complex carbohydrates would become one of biology’s hottest emerging research topics two decades later.

“I don’t know if Albersheim’s group was ahead of its time,” said Martha Krebs, former director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. “But I do know that they were on the leading edge of the discovery curve.”

Today, glycobiologists (“glyco-” means sugar) are deciphering the astonishing roles of carbohydrates in plants, microbes, and humans and other animals. Cell-surface carbohydrates inhibit or promote invading microbes, dictate the success of organ transplants and blood transfusions, and determine whether a bacterium infects pigs but not humans. The roles of carbohydrates in human health — from bacterial and viral infections to cancer, diabetes and autoimmune diseases — promise to lead to new vaccines, diagnostics and medicines.

The CCRC's new facility sparks scientific creativity throughout its design. The floor plan promotes chance encounters among researchers. Shared equipment is located in a central area. Strategically placed interactive areas offer comfortable seating and whiteboards. Two main "streets" run the length of each floor. Neighborhood-like areas for smaller gatherings give the large building a homey feel.

Albersheim and Darvill knew that unlocking secrets of these molecules was going to take equipment and expertise that the pair did not have. So as the tea grew cold, the two talked about creating a research center devoted to understanding complex carbohydrates in biology.

They would need a team of scientists from diverse disciplines, free from the artificial boundaries that might pigeonhole researchers as chemists or botanists or cell biologists. The pair imagined that melding ideas and approaches would lead to discoveries no single scientist could have envisaged or would have been able to accomplish alone. Plus, a critical mass of carbohydrate researchers assembled in one place would give them a competitive advantage for funding, especially to purchase and operate expensive equipment out of reach for an individual scientist.

Albersheim and Darvill had considered creating such a center at the University of Colorado where administrators’ enthusiasm was apparent but the financial backing wasn’t forthcoming.

So in the Goring Hotel’s elegantly appointed sitting room, the twosome decided the time had come to devise a new plan. They knew they were on to something — maybe something big.


Intro  |  Charting the course   |  The team's beginnings   |  The pitch
Cross-country caravan   |  The gathering   |  Collaborations


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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