By definition, beta-glucans are chains of D-glucose polysaccharides, linked by beta type glycosidic bonds. These six-sided D-glucose rings can be connected to one another, on a variety of positions on the D-glucose ring structure. Some β-glucan compounds are continual repeats of D-glucose attached at a specific position.
However, β-glucans can be more diverse than molecules like starch. For instance, a β-glucan molecule can be composed of repeating D-glucose units linked with β-glycosidic bonds at one position like starch, but have branching glucose side-chains attached to other positions on the main D-glucose chain. These smaller side-chains can branch off the β-glucan “backbone" (in the case of starch, the backbone would be D-glucose chains linked at the (1,4) position) at other positions like that of the 3 and 6 position. In addition, these side-chains can be attached to other types of molecules, like proteins. An example of a β-glucan that has proteins attached to it is Polysaccharide-K.
The most active forms of β-glucans are those comprising D-glucose units with (1,3) links and with side-chains of D-glucose attached at the (1,6) position. These are referred to as β-1,3/1,6 glucan. Some researchers have suggested that it is the frequency, location, and length of the side-chains rather than the backbone of β-glucans that determine their immune system activity. Another variable is the fact that some of these compounds exist as single strand chains, while the backbones of other β(1,3)-glucans exist as double or triple stranded helix chains. In some cases, proteins linked to the β(1,3)-glucan backbone may also be involved in providing therapeutic activity. Although these compounds can potentially enhance immune function, it must be emphasized that this research is in its infancy. In addition, there are differing opinions on which molecular weight, shape, structure, and source of β(1,3)-glucans provide the greatest biological activity.
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