Hyaluronan is a very large polysaccharide that is found in extracellular matrices, at the cell surface and inside cells. This review focuses on the functions of hyaluronan directly associated with the cell surface, where it is commonly present as the essential core of a highly hydrated pericellular matrix that contains several other components (hyaladherins) bound to hyaluronan. Three major molecular characteristics of hyaluronan contribute to its physiological functions: its unique hydrodynamic properties, its interactions with structural extracellular hyaladherins, and its instructive effects on cell signaling and behavior. Recent studies of hyaluronan-deficient mouse embryos illustrate the importance of each of these classes of function of hyaluronan. It is postulated that the morphogenetic effects of hyaluronan are due to its ability to act as a template for assembly of a multi-component, pericellular matrix as well as to its physical properties. This matrix would provide a hydrated environment in which cells are separated from structural barriers to morphogenetic changes and receive signals from hyaluronan itself and from associated factors.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.