Carbohydrates are ubiquitous in Nature and play vital roles in many biological systems. Therefore the synthesis of carbohydrate-based compounds is of considerable interest for both research and commercial purposes. However, carbohydrates are challenging, due to the large number of sugar subunits and the multiple ways in which these can be linked together. Therefore, to tackle the challenge of glycosynthesis, chemists are increasingly turning their attention towards enzymes, which are exquisitely adapted to the intricacy of these biomolecules. In Nature, glycosidic linkages are mainly synthesized by Leloir glycosyltransferases, but can result from the action of non-Leloir transglycosylases or phosphorylases. Advantageously for chemists, non-Leloir transglycosylases are glycoside hydrolases, enzymes that are readily available and exhibit a wide range of substrate specificities. Nevertheless, non-Leloir transglycosylases are unusual glycoside hydrolases in as much that they efficiently catalyse the formation of glycosidic bonds, whereas most glycoside hydrolases favour the mechanistically related hydrolysis reaction. Unfortunately, because non-Leloir transglycosylases are almost indistinguishable from their hydrolytic counterparts, it is unclear how these enzymes overcome the ubiquity of water, thus avoiding the hydrolytic reaction. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to rationally design non-Leloir transglycosylases using the vast diversity of glycoside hydrolases as protein templates. In this critical review, a careful analysis of literature data describing non-Leloir transglycosylases and their relationship to glycoside hydrolase counterparts is used to clarify the state of the art knowledge and to establish a new rational basis for the engineering of glycoside hydrolases.

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