The secret cellular language of sugars

13 August 2019: 

Associate Professor Daniel Kolarich is the CNBP’s chief investigator in the field of glycomics – the study of the glycome, the term for the sugars in our bodies.

These sugars, or glycans, are attached to proteins and lipids that build the surface of cells and determine how they communicate.

“The cell is decorated with these sugary molecules – different cells have different decorations,” Daniel says. “They are part of the language that the cells use to communicate with each other, to signal to each other, to interact with each other.”

Changes in these glycans can be positive – because they signal what the cell needs to do – but can also be negative when they signal things they are not supposed to be doing, such as growing cancer cells.

Daniel, who is a Research leader and ARC Future Fellow at Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, heads the Glycoanalytical Mass Spectrometry Facility. He studies how cells talk to each other, and is trying to understand what makes them change their normal behaviour and become diseased.

“There are a lot of different aspects of our work but, in lay terms, we are trying to translate the language that the cells use to communicate to understand what is happening there.”

Originally from Austria, Daniel now calls the Gold Coast home.

He was Group Leader in Glycoproteomics at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, before joining the CNBP about 18 months ago.

But it was not his first time living in Australia having worked as a research fellow at Macquarie University with Professor Nicki Packer, the CNBP’s Chief Investigator in Biomolecular Discovery.

“And now my Future Fellowship has brought me back to Australia again – hopefully for good now,” he says.

“The good thing about living on the Gold Coast is all of the needs for your life are pretty much here. I don’t have to have long commutes to my work, so that is a great plus for my work-life balance.

“We have a very beautiful life with the mountains behind us, the sea on the other side, the Broadwater and all the lakes. It makes it easy to recharge your batteries and not think about work for a while.”

He is excited to be working with the CNBP which, he says, does a great job at bringing different disciplines together.

“It’s very successful, I have to say, in actually getting people with different expertise to talk to each other – when else would I ever have a chance to talk to physicists about quantum mechanics, for example?

“It opens your eyes to a lot of other things by having the opportunity to talk to people from very different fields and getting very different perspectives,” he says.

“It makes you a little bit humble in terms of where you are with your findings, but also allows you to get a better view of where you might be going.”