The glycan part of cellular glycoconjugates affords a versatile means to build biochemical signals. These oligosaccharides have an exceptional talent in this respect. They surpass any other class of biomolecule in coding capacity within an oligomer (code word). Four structural factors account for this property: the potential for variability of linkage points, anomeric position and ring size as well as the aptitude for branching (first and second dimensions of the sugar code). Specific intermolecular recognition is favoured by abundant potential for hydrogen/co-ordination bonds and for C–H/π-interactions. Fittingly, an array of protein folds has developed in evolution with the ability to select certain glycans from the natural diversity. The thermodynamics of this reaction profits from the occurrence of these ligands in only a few energetically favoured conformers, comparing favourably with highly flexible peptides (third dimension of the sugar code). Sequence, shape and local aspects of glycan presentation (e.g. multivalency) are key factors to regulate the avidity of lectin binding. At the level of cells, distinct glycan determinants, a result of enzymatic synthesis and dynamic remodelling, are being defined as biomarkers. Their presence gains a functional perspective by co-regulation of the cognate lectin as effector, for example in growth regulation. The way to tie sugar signal and lectin together is illustrated herein for two tumour model systems. In this sense, orchestration of glycan and lectin expression is an efficient means, with far-reaching relevance, to exploit the coding potential of oligosaccharides physiologically and medically.

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