Objectives: The presence of a protective adherent mucus gel barrier against gastric reflux in the healthy esophagus is uncertain. The aim was to characterize the surface mucin composition and determine the extent of any adherent mucus gel layer on the normal esophagus, and compare this with that in Barrett's esophagus.
Methods: Isolated surface mucins were characterized by density centrifugation, gel filtration chromatography, and chemical composition. Adherent surface mucus was visualized in situ on unfixed and cryostat sections of mucosa and biopsies using a method that preserves mucus layer thickness.
Results: There was a complete absence of adherent mucus gel layers on normal human, pig, and rat esophagi. This was in contrast to the thick adherent mucous layer (median thickness = 100-200 microm) seen on the corresponding gastric mucosa. Small quantities of glycoprotein with a composition characteristic of a secretory mucin were isolated from the pig esophagus surface. The mucin, density range between 1.44 and 1.48 g x ml(-1), contained 80% carbohydrate and was rich in serine, threonine, and proline. The mucin fragmented into smaller glycoprotein units on proteolysis and partially on reduction. Cryostat sections from columnar-lined esophageal biopsies had a substantial adherent surface mucous layer (median thickness = 90 microm, interquartile range = 84-94 microm) staining for neutral mucins (gastric-type epithelium) and acidic mucins (intestinal metaplasia).
Conclusions: A secretory mucin, with an analysis distinct from that of gastric or salivary mucin, is present in very small quantities on the esophageal mucosa and in amounts insufficient to form an adherent gel layer. It is unlikely that mucus has a role in protecting the normal esophagus against reflux. However, an adherent mucous layer was observed over columnar-lined esophagus, and this may protect against reflux.