There are three potential N-glycosylation sites in the non-conserved central region of the insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3) sequence (N89AS, N109AS, N172FS). IGFBP-3 exists as two glycoforms which reduce to a single form on enzymatic deglycosylation. To determine the functional significance of the carbohydrate chains, the N-glycosylation sites were mutated singly and in combinations by substituting Asn residues with Ala. Each recombinant glycoform was detected by radioimmunoassay, indicating that glycosylation is not essential for secretion in Chinese hamster ovary cells. Ligand blotting of the conditioned media using [125I]IGF-I indicated that all seven mutants are active. On the basis of the number and molecular masses of the bands detected for each glycoform, there is approximately 4, 4.5 and 5 kDa of carbohydrate on Asn89, Asn109 and Asn172 respectively, with variable occupancy of Asn172. Ternary complex formation by the glycovariants in the presence of ALS and excess IGF-I was not significantly different from that of fully glycosylated recombinant human (rh)IGFBP-3 [Ka (fully glycosylated)=12.5+/-4.1 l/nmol; mean Ka (all mutants)=22.1+/-3.0 l/nmol]. In contrast, Asn to Asp substitutions decreased acid-labile subunit (ALS) binding activity. Cell-surface association experiments indicate that glycosylation may influence the partitioning of IGFBP-3 between the extracellular milieu and the cell surface. Therefore, while the carbohydrate units appear to be non-essential to ALS or IGF binding, they may modulate other biological activities of IGFBP-3.