Ulf Lindahl - A personal voyage through the proteoglycan field

Proteoglycans (PGs) are proteins substituted with sulfated polysaccharide (glycosaminoglycan, GAG) chains. My selection of the PG research area occurred by sheer accident. During the course in medical biochemistry, part of the medical curriculum (1959, at the old department on Dag Hammarskjölds väg, opposite to the hospital), the class was subdivided into seminar groups that were arbitrarily assigned to senior teachers.

Lennart Rodén had me run a few GAG samples on Sephadex columns and then departed for University of Chicago, where I subsequently spent the first two years of my graduate training elucidating the structure of the GAG-protein linkage region.

Upon my return to Uppsala, Torvard Laurent took over as supervisor until my graduation in 1966. I remain indebted to Lennart and Torvard for their guidance, support and friendship.

My subsequent career involved employment as professor in medical and physiological chemistry, first at the veterinary faculty at SLU (1973-91) then at Uppsala University (now IMBIM, 1991-2005). When asked why I retired at age 65 rather then the optional 67, I noted that although I had appreciated my profession in general I felt done with certain tasks, such as marking written examinations. Other aspects of undergraduate teaching I quite enjoyed, and it has been rewarding to follow the curriculum develop toward its current problem-oriented state. I recall lecturing medical students on atomic orbital theory!

My scientific work, along with a large number of coworkers, remained focussed on PGs, in particular on their heparin and heparan sulfate GAG chains. In the course of this work emphasis was gradually shifted from structural carbohydrate chemistry to GAG metabolism (biosynthesis and degradation of GAG chains), functional properties and GAG pathophysiology. We still aim at defining the mechanisms of biosynthetic regulation behind the generation of tissue-specific heparan sulfate chains, an ever fascinating problem. A limited number of other groups elsewhere have pursued similar lines of research, realizing the vital roles of PGs (and their GAG-chain ”business ends”) in development, homeostasis and disease.  Yet the PG field has remained relatively small; in particular, I am surprised at the relative scarcity of scientists devoting their attention primarily to the GAG chains. It have enjoyed my friendship with several colleagues within this community, including some competitors.

I formally retired ten years ago. Many former graduate students, postdocs, guest scientists and research associates have since showed up around our kitchen table. Some still remain active in the lab. I would like to especially thank the three senior scientists, Lena Kjellén, Jin-ping Li and Dorothe Spillmann, for many years of most enjoyable collaboration, and for their friendly smiles when I still turn up at the lab. Finally, I note that although the department has grown tremendously since the old days, IMBIM remains a pleasant and inspiring scene for scientific pursuit.