18 December 2017

For his major contributions to glycan research

Hans Vliegenthart chosen AAAS Fellow

Hans Vliegenthart bij de uitreiking van de naar hem vernoemde Scriptieprijs 2016
Hans Vliegenthart at the presentation of the Thesis Prize 2016 that was named after him

Utrecht University’s Professor Emeritus Hans Vliegenthart (Chemistry) has been chosen as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He was presented with this prestigious honour in recognition of his major contributions to glycan research. Glycans are molecules with often extremely complex structures that cover the exterior of every cell, and which are vital for every biological process. 

Glycans are a family of biomolecules that include ordinary sugar, but their structure is often more complex than that of DNA and cellular proteins. Watch the video for more information.


“Hans Vliegenthart has laid the foundations for glycan research on a number of fronts”, says Prof. Geert-Jan Boons, who has continued his line of research at Utrecht University since 2016. “He was one of the first to develop methods for determining the structure of these extremely complex biomolecules. He also integrated the insights gained through this work with analyses of the biological synthesis of glycans in healthy and diseased tissue, and he applied the results in his research into the development of vaccines.”

Unusual combination

Hans Vliegenthart (1936) was inspired to study biochemistry by his biology teacher at secondary school. He taught Vliegenthart that an insight at the molecular level is crucial to really understand biological problems, so he decided to study chemistry instead of biology. In 1960, he graduated from Utrecht University with a major in Organic Chemistry and a minor in Cell Biology, which was an unusual combination at the time.

Unexplored field

While continuing his biochemical research into hormones after earning his PhD, he came across an unknown glycopeptide, and when he attempted to clarify the glycol aspect, he discovered that glycans presented a relatively unexplored field of research. When he was appointed to the post of Associate Professor, he seized the opportunity to expand his research in that direction.


As NMR spectroscopy technology became more advanced over the years, he in turn became a leading pioneer in research into the structures and synthesis of glycans. That challenge eventually proved to be so great that 20 years passed before it became possible to study their interactions at the molecular level.

Driving force behind Bijvoet Center

Vliegenthart was also one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the Bijvoet Center for Biomolecular Research at Utrecht University, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2018. Under his leadership as Research Director, the Bijvoet laid the foundations for the intensive collaboration between the structural biological research groups at the Department of Chemistry in Utrecht. In the process, Vliegenthart served two terms as the Dean of the former Faculty of Chemistry.

International accolades

Prof. Vliegenthart has received several international accolades for his work, including three Honourary Doctorates and the Claude S. Hudson Award in Carbohydrate Chemistry from the American Chemical Society.

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