At the surface of many cells is a compendium of glycoconjugates that form an interface between the cell and its surroundings; the glycocalyx. The glycocalyx serves several functions that have captivated the interest of many groups. Given its privileged residence, this meshwork of sugar-rich biomolecules is poised to transmit signals across the cellular membrane, facilitating communication with the extracellular matrix and mediating important signalling cascades. As a product of the glycan biosynthetic machinery, the glycocalyx can serve as a partial mirror that reports on the cell's glycosylation status. The glycocalyx can also serve as an information-rich barrier, withholding the entry of pathogens into the underlying plasma membrane through glycan-rich molecular messages. In this review, we provide an overview of the different approaches devised to engineer glycans at the cell surface, highlighting considerations of each, as well as illuminating the grand challenges that face the next era of ‘glyco-engineers’. While we have learned much from these techniques, it is evident that much is left to be unearthed.

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