Long the poor cousins of proteins--and now the darlings of the biotechnology industry--carbohydrates are coming into their own as objects of research. Among the four basic biochemicals of life (along with fats, proteins, and nucleic acids), they are the focal point of a hot new area of inquiry, dubbed "glycobiology" by some of its proponents. And the number of startups capitalizing on new discoveries about carbohydrates by designing novel drugs is growing.

"I think the biotechnology of complex carbohydrates, and the research that derives from it, is something that will blossom into a scientific revolution, like molecular biology did in the early '70s and '80s," says Howard C. Krivan, president of three-year-old MicroCarb Inc., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based company dedicated to developing infectious disease diagnostics and vaccines based on human carbohydrate cell-surface receptors. "The understanding of the vital biological role of carbohydrates and their applications in medicine--such as the binding of...

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