Sugars and other types of carbohydrates are biomolecules which play a range of key roles in the body. In particular, they are important messengers that help to coordinate immune responses. For example, a carbohydrate known as UDP-Glucose (a kind of UDP-sugar) can activate P2Y14, a receptor studded through the surface of many cells; this event then triggers a cascade of molecular events associated with asthma, kidney injury and lung inflammation. Yet it remains unclear how exactly UDP-Glucose recognizes P2Y14 – and, more broadly, how carbohydrates interact with purinergic receptors, the class of proteins that P2Y14 belongs to.
To examine this question, Zhao et al. combined functional experiments in the laboratory with molecular dynamics simulations, a computational approach. This work revealed that UDP-Glucose may activate P2Y14 by bridging its segments anchored within the cell membrane. A component of P2Y14, known as the KDKE chain, was found to have an important role in distinguishing between highly similar types of UDP-sugars. This allowed Zhao et al. to design three sugar molecules which could activate another purinergic receptor that also contained a KDKE chain.
Purinergic receptors are promising therapeutic targets. A finer understanding of how they recognise the molecules that activate them is therefore important to be able to identify and design new drug compounds.