The outside of every cell on Earth—from the cells in your body to single-celled microorganisms—is blanketed with a coat of carbohydrates, or sugar molecules, that extend from the cell surface, branching off and bending as they interface with the extra-cellular space. The specific patterns in which these carbohydrates are arranged serve as an ID code that help cells recognize each other. For example, human liver cells have one pattern, while human red blood cells another. Certain diseases can even alter the pattern of surface carbohydrates, which is one way the body can recognize damaged cells. On foreign cells, including invading bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, the carbohydrate coat is even more distinct.
Laura Kiessling, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, studies how carbohydrate coats are assembled and how cells use these coats to tell friend from foe. The implications of her research suggest strategies for targeting tumors, fighting diseases of inflammation and, as she discusses in this video, developing new classes of antibiotics.