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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Peter Seeberger, 32

MIT

Everybody knows that, in fashion, it’s accessories that really make the outfit work. Sometimes that’s true in biochemistry, too.

For instance: a protein’s functionality often hinges on the addition of a carbohydrate molecule. Consisting of chains of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon atoms, carbohydrates play a key role in everything from healing wounds to heart disease. Yet their chemistry remains somewhat mysterious, partly because they’re tough to make in the lab. Biochemist Peter Seeberger has set out to change all that.

A transplant from Nuremberg, Germany, Seeberger has already dreamed up new ways to string carbohydrates together from their simple sugar building blocks, and also spearheaded the assembly of the most complex carbohydrate ever made by man. Seeberger’s work, says University of Colorado chemist Marvin Caruthers, sets the stage for an automated carbohydrate-making device that could "profoundly influence biochemistry and medicine." In Seeberger’s lab newly synthesized carbohydrates are already being exploited to probe how cells transmit signals, as well as how immune-system cells recognize HIV and parasites. Those insights could lead to new ways of targeting gene therapies against pathogens, and potent new cancer vaccines. Whether those specifics materialize or not, expect Seeberger to be a leader in discovering how those tricky cellular outfits really go together.

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