Galectins are widely distributed sugar-binding proteins whose basic specificity for beta-galactosides is conserved by evolutionarily preserved carbohydrate-recognition domains (CRDs). Although they have long been believed to be involved in diverse biological phenomena critical for multicellular organisms, in only few a cases has it been proved that their in vivo functions are actually based on specific recognition of the complex carbohydrates expressed on cell surfaces. To obtain clues to understand the physiological roles of diverse members of the galectin family, detailed analysis of their sugar-binding specificity is necessary from a comparative viewpoint. For this purpose, we recently reinforced a conventional system for frontal affinity chromatography (FAC) [J. Chromatogr., B, Biomed. Sci. Appl. 771 (2002) 67-87]. By using this system, we quantitatively analyzed the interactions at 20 degrees C between 13 galectins including 16 CRDs originating from mammals, chick, nematode, sponge, and mushroom, with 41 pyridylaminated (PA) oligosaccharides. As a result, it was confirmed that galectins require three OH groups of N-acetyllactosamine, as had previously been denoted, i.e., 4-OH and 6-OH of Gal, and 3-OH of GlcNAc. As a matter of fact, no galectin could bind to glycolipid-type glycans (e.g., GM2, GA2, Gb3), complex-type N-glycans, of which both 6-OH groups are sialylated, nor Le-related antigens (e.g., Le(x), Le(a)). On the other hand, considerable diversity was observed for individual galectins in binding specificity in terms of (1) branching of N-glycans, (2) repeating of N-acetyllactosamine units, or (3) substitutions at 2-OH or 3-OH groups of nonreducing terminal Gal. Although most galectins showed moderately enhanced affinity for branched N-glycans or repeated N-acetyllactosamines, some of them had extremely enhanced affinity for either of these multivalent glycans. Some galectins also showed particular preference for alpha1-2Fuc-, alpha1-3Gal-, alpha1-3GalNAc-, or alpha2-3NeuAc-modified glycans. To summarize, galectins have evolved their sugar-binding specificity by enhancing affinity to either "branched", "repeated", or "substituted" glycans, while conserving their ability to recognize basic disaccharide units, Galbeta1-3/4GlcNAc. On these bases, they are considered to exert specialized functions in diverse biological phenomena, which may include formation of local cell-surface microdomains (raft) by sorting glycoconjugate members for each cell type.