Lipid membranes are common to all forms of life. While being stable barriers that delimitate the cell as the fundamental organismal unit, biological membranes are highly dynamic by allowing for lateral diffusion, transbilayer passage via selective channels, and in eukaryotic cells for endocytic uptake through the formation of membrane bound vesicular or tubular carriers. Two of the most abundant fundamental fabrics of membranes—lipids and complex sugars—are produced through elaborate chains of biosynthetic enzymes, which makes it difficult to study them by conventional reverse genetics. This review illustrates how organic synthesis provides access to uncharted areas of membrane glycobiology research and its application to biomedicine. For this Special Issue on Chemical Biology Research in France, focus will be placed on synthetic approaches (i) to study endocytic functions of glycosylated proteins and lipids according to the GlycoLipid–Lectin (GL–Lect) hypothesis, notably that of Shiga toxin; (ii) to mechanistically dissect its endocytosis and intracellular trafficking with small molecule; and (iii) to devise intracellular delivery strategies for immunotherapy and tumor targeting. It will be pointed out how the chemical biologist’s view on lipids, sugars, and proteins synergizes with biophysics and modeling to “look” into the membrane for atomistic scale insights on molecular rearrangements that drive the biogenesis of endocytic carriers in processes of clathrin-independent endocytosis.
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