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Dental research receives $1.35M grant to study 'dark matter of biology'

December 13, 2017 Buffalo, N.Y. — The University at Buffalo announced Nov. 21 that a multi-school team of researchers received a $1.35 million grant to study glycans, a common but little understood class of biomolecules that help bacteria attach to host surfaces, including in the mouth, according to a news release.
    
The three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health Common Fund for Glycoscience will allow the researchers to collect oral bacteria from humans and animals. Their goal: to examine how the microorganisms bind to glycans in the mouth to form dental biofilms, or plaque, which increases the risk for cavities and periodontal disease.
    
"My collaborator Ajit Varki calls glycans 'the dark matter of biology' because they remain vastly unexplored," said Dr. Stefan Ruhl, principal investigator and professor in the Department of Oral Biology in the UB School of Dental Medicine, in a news release. "We know too little about their function in health and disease."
    
According to the researchers, glycans exist throughout the body within all living organisms and vary between species and by the individual. Because of their complex structure, little is known about their biological functions and roles in disease.
    
The researches will harvest friendly bacteria from the mouths of humans and animals, such as horses, cows, sheep and other mammals, to mine for serine-rich repeat proteins. Using genetic information, the researchers will artificially reproduce the glycan binding pockets of the proteins. This allows the researchers to mass-produce affordable, easy-to-use toolkits for scientists who are interested in glycan analysis. Since bacteria evolved to match the glycans in their host environment, the adhesins can offer clues to patterns and characteristics within the millions of potential glycan structures in both biological and pathological samples.
    
The study is the only one to include dental research among several projects supported through the NIH Common Fund for Glycoscience.

The project includes investigators from the University of Buffalo; University of California, San Francisco; University of California, San Diego; University of California, Davis; University of Maryland; Emory University; and Cornell University. Paul Sullam, M.D., co-principal investigator and professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, also lead the study.