Glycobiologists unveil expanded symbol nomenclature

A new nomenclature system extends to plants, invertebrates, archaea and bacteria.THE CONSORTIUM OF GLYCOBIOLOGY EDITORS, LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA.ORIGINAL DRAWING BY RICHARD D. CUMMINGS.

Glycans are structurally complex and difficult to represent on paper. This December, editors of a glycobiology textbook introduced an extended nomenclature system that simplifies complicated branching sugar structures into easy-to-use symbols. The new nomenclature will be available for free as an advance online appendix of the third edition of “Essentials of Glycobiology,” published by Cold Spring Harbor Press.

The system expands on the widely adopted nomenclature from the textbook’s second edition, first introduced in 2005. That version was limited to glycans in vertebrates. The new system has been expanded to include common monosaccharides in plants, invertebrates, archaea and bacteria. “We’re trying to address the fact that there are many more monosaccharides in nature than the limited list represented in the current version,” says Ajit Varki at the University of California, San Diego. Varki, a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is the executive editor of the textbook’s third edition.

The goal in developing this system was to make it logical, easy to remember, and easy to use. New symbols have been added, but existing symbols will remain intact, making the system easier to adopt. In an invited publication for the December issue of the journal Glycobiology, the book editors said that they hope the new nomenclature will “help students and researchers to more easily discover and appreciate the relevance and beauty of glycan diversity in living systems, and to communicate this exciting information to others.”

There will be one central website available through the National Center for Biotechnology Information as a reference. Each monosaccharide symbol will be linked to its entry in PubChem at NCBI, and pre-drawn symbols will be available to download or copy and paste.

The editors hope that making the system freely available will discourage the introduction of minor variations to the nomenclature. These variations popped up when the second edition’s system became widely adopted.

Consistency may help to avoid confusion, but Varki stresses that adoption of this system will be entirely voluntary. “The last thing you want to do is try and push a nomenclature onto other scientists,” he says.

No official international body currently governs nomenclature for the symbolic depiction of glycans. The new system is the product of a collaboration between many leaders in the field. The editors of “Essentials of Glychobiology” are coordinating with several databases that may decide to adopt it. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, for example, is considering using the system in its recommendations for carbohydrate nomenclature.

After the recent National Research Council report on glycosciences, the National Institutes of Health Director’s Common Fund awarded $10 million toward a glycoscience program for development of new tools and approaches. These are promising signals of the growing importance of the field. For glycoscience to make unhampered progress, a clear, accessible and ubiquitous nomenclature could provide some much-needed consistency.

Alexandra Taylor Alexandra Taylor is a science writing intern at ASBMB Today and a master’s candidate in science and medical writing at Johns Hopkins University.