You may already have heard of some different types of sugar. Glucose and fructose are common additives used to sweeten processed foods. And you may find sucrose in a jar on your kitchen table (incidentally sucrose is made by joining together glucose with fructose).
However, sugars have many more important and exciting roles in nature than to simply sweetening your tea. Below are 5 reasons why sugars are truly fascinating:
#1: Sugars literally power our bodies
Every cell in our body (except for red blood cells) has a power plant known as a mitochondrion that takes molecules of glucose and breaks them apart. The energy released from breaking these chemical bonds is used to make a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which acts as a kind of energy currency (ATP also contains a sugar called ribose).
Lots of the tasks that our cells do cost energy. They therefore have to spend ATP to do them. Without ATP, our cells are essentially broke.
#2: Sugars let our cells talk to each other
Our cells need to be able to talk to one another for our body to work properly. One way that nearby cells can do this is by using sugars.
Each cell is coated in long sugar chains (called polysaccharides) which nearby cells can read. These polysaccharides can tell the cell lots of things like, what type of cell it is, or whether it is healthy.
A good example of this are blood groups. I’m sure that you’ve heard of these before. Maybe you even know what yours is? A-positive? Or perhaps B-negative?
Basically these groups tell us what type of sugars we have on our blood cells. Someone with A-positive blood has different sugars to someone with B-negative blood. Our immune system knows what type of sugars we should have and it’s trained to attack anything with sugars that it doesn’t recognise. That’s why a patient has to be given the right type of blood, otherwise their immune system will start to attack the new blood and make them dangerously ill.
#3: Bacteria can use sugars to go under cover
In the last example I said that our immune system is trained to attack anything that it doesn’t recognise. One of the main reasons for this is to stop bacteria from infecting our bodies.
Unfortunately some bacteria have caught on to this and have developed a way to avoid detection. They cover themselves in sugars that look exactly the same as our own sugars, like a kind of microscopic camouflage. If an immune cell passes by, it just thinks that the bacterium is one of our own cells and continues on its way.
This way the bacterium is able to grow and multiply without our body noticing. Which is obviously bad news for us…
#4: Sugars are an important line of defence
Bacteria are trying to invade our bodies all the time, be it through the air that we breathe in or the food that we eat.
One of the main lines of defence against this sort of attack is the mucus that lines our airways and our gut.
And what is mucus mostly made of? That right! Sugars.
Sugars like to interact with water, creating a thick, sticky liquid. Bacteria get trapped in this mucus, stopping them from getting in to our bodies. The mucus then gets washed away, taking the bacteria with it.
#5: Sugars are involved in lots of diseases
Above we have seen that sugars are very important for our bodies to work normally. However, this means that things can get pretty bad if these sugars aren’t made correctly.
In fact many of the known genetic diseases involving sugars cause severe mental or physical disabilities, often with very short life expectancies. Since in many of these cases we know the genes responsible for the disease, it may in the future be possible to treat these with gene therapy.
Sugars also play an important role in cancer and can promote the growth and spread of tumour cells. They can also hide the cells from the immune system, which makes it difficult for our bodies to fight against it. Scientists are looking at these sugars to see how we can make cancer therapies more effective.
So there are 5 reasons that I think that sugars are fascinating. If you think so too, please follow this blog for more content coming soon.