Unlocking the secrets of complex carbs


Influencing far more than just our energy levels and waistlines, complex carbohydrates are one of the most important building blocks of existence—and the University of Adelaide is a global leader in their investigation.

To the uninitiated, complex carbohydrates appear to have one simple role: feed our bodies. Most people are aware tucking into carb-rich foods like potatoes, brown rice and oatmeal delivers a satisfying dose of get-up-and-go. Yet this barely scratches the surface of the molecules’ significance in our lives and world.

Biologically, complex carbohydrates, or glycans, are truly ubiquitous. A glycan layer surrounds almost every living cell in nature. They play a part in most biological processes and are involved in many major diseases. Glycan-derived polymer structures can also be used to produce useful renewable materials; glycans in plant cell walls can be processed to make biofuels; and the list goes on.

Consequently, the field of glycoscience is one of the fastest growing, and most innovative, in the world, and has become a research area of great interest and strength at the University of Adelaide. In 2016, the University co-launched Adelaide Glycomics, a world-class facility purpose-built for the comprehensive analysis of glycans. One of the most advanced laboratories of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, Adelaide Glycomics was designed to put South Australian practitioners at the forefront of glycoscience research and development.

“Adelaide Glycomics is now a leading hub for novel local, national and international glycoscience investigations of all kinds,” says Professor Vincent Bulone, who directs both the glycomics facility and the University’s Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.

“Our state-of-the-art equipment attracts highly qualified analysts to conduct fundamental and applied research, and develop valuable new glycan-based products and applications across a wide range of industries.”

An early example of the laboratory’s work, he says, is the discovery, extraction and world-first detailed structural characterisation of the glycan planteose in chia seeds. Published recently in the journal Carbohydrate Polymers, the research – led by Professor Bulone – is of great interest to practitioners in nutrition and functional food.

“Planteose is known to enhance intestinal health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, but little is known about its prebiotic properties.

“This is largely due to the difficulty of obtaining pure planteose in sufficient amounts for bioactivity testing. So our discovery of relatively abundant planteose in chia seeds, and refinement of a simple method for its extraction and purification, will greatly facilitate the detailed assessment of its prebiotic properties.”

Other possible areas of future inquiry for the laboratory include: the development of glycan-based materials for drug delivery systems and cosmetics; using glycans to help control the composition and quality of wines; improving understanding of the causes of diseases and developing diagnostic tools; and finding glycan applications for eco-friendly waste management.

“We’re also keen to determine the structure and relative proportions of the various starch types in different potato varieties,” adds Professor Bulone, “and identify what controls these proportions. That could enable the development of low-GI (glycaemic index) potatoes through plant breeding.”

Based at the University’s Waite campus, Adelaide Glycomics is a collaborative venture with Agilent Technologies Australia Pty Ltd, a leading provider of bio-analytical instrumentation and applications.

Related links:
Professor Vincent Bulone – researcher profile
Adelaide Glycomics
Food Innovation