Nicolle's work focuses on developing tools to study glycans – or sugars attached to proteins, lipids and other molecules – in cells throughout biology. In light of the current coronavirus pandemic, Nicolle highlights sugars' role in the transmission of viruses. For example, the influenza virus binds to specific sugar structures on the surface of human cells to gain entry. Inside the cell, the virus replicates and then uses sugars to exit and spread to other cells. "Sugars are the doors in and out of cells for viruses," says Nicolle.
Finding out more about how sugars interact with other molecules in the cell – through interdisciplinary -omics research – could make it easier to develop vaccines for viral diseases. It is hoped that research published in Molecular Omics will impact vaccine development and infection control. However, Nicolle notes that the pandemic has affected research progress and will lead to long- and short-term reduction in budgets and outputs. Nicolle adds, "Lockdown has created a 'zoomed out' community, suffering from a lack of real social contact. It is limiting collaboration and stunting ideas that often come from a quick corridor chat."
In the past, sugars have been overlooked for study in favour of other molecules such as DNA, RNA, proteins and lipids. However, sugars are attached to many of these molecules and play important roles in cell function. "We have about 20,000 genes but millions of different proteins are derived from those genes. How do we get these millions from only 20,000? It’s done partly by adding things like sugars to proteins that change the protein structure and function. This means the same gene produces different proteins in different cells. It's estimated that at least half of all proteins are modified with sugars," says Nicolle.
Now that analytical tools have been developed by glycomics scientists like Nicolle, we can finally study these important sugar modifications in cells. This is enabling the field to expand into all areas of biology. “We are finding sugars to have functions in places where we never thought they would be,” says Nicolle. "Our understanding of the role of sugars is increasing and we can start to target them as disease diagnostics and drug targets – just as we do proteins."
When things move into a state of new-normal, Nicolle hopes that glycomics research will help us get a better understanding of how the cell works. She says, "Glycomics is one piece of an enormous puzzle, in which not all the pieces are made of sugar. As a journal, Molecular Omics is unique in bringing the analytical -omics together – genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, lipidomics and glycomics – as well as the bioinformatics crucial to interpreting the complex data being produced."
Molecular Omics publishes high-quality research in all -omics fields. Nicolle is excited about being an Editorial Board member and keen to do all she can to help the journal attract articles of high importance in all -omics fields. She is currently co-editing a Themed Collection, 'Glycomics & Glycoproteomics: From Analytics to Function', that is set to receive impactful submissions and increase the journal’s visibility within this field.