Human airway mucin glycosylation: a combinatory of carbohydrate determinants which vary in cystic fibrosis

Glycoconj J. 2001 Sep;18(9):661-84. doi: 10.1023/a:1020867221861.


Human airway mucins represent a very broad family of polydisperse high molecular mass glycoproteins, which are part of the airway innate immunity. Apomucins, which correspond to their peptide part, are encoded by at least 6 different mucin genes (MUC1, MUC2, MUC4, MUC5B, MUC5AC and MUC7). The expression of some of these genes (at least MUC2 and MUC5AC) is induced by bacterial products, tobacco smoke and different cytokines. Human airway mucins are highly glycosylated (70-80% per weight). They contain from one single to several hundred carbohydrate chains. The carbohydrate chains that cover the apomucins are extremely diverse, adding to the complexity of these molecules. Structural information is available for more than 150 different O-glycan chains corresponding to the shortest chains (less than 12 sugars). The biosynthesis of these carbohydrate chains is a stepwise process involving many glycosyl- or sulfo-transferases. The only structural element shared by all mucin O-glycan chains is a GalNAc residue linked to a serine or threonine residue of the apomucin. There is growing evidence that the apomucin sequences influence the first glycosylation reactions. The elongation of the chains leads to various linear or branched extensions. Their non-reducing end, which corresponds to the termination of the chains, may bear different carbohydrate structures, such as histo-blood groups A or B determinants, H and sulfated H determinants, Lewis a, Lewis b, Lewis x or Lewis y epitopes, as well as sialyl- or sulfo- (sometimes sialyl- and sulfo-) Lewis a or Lewis x determinants. The synthesis of these different terminal determinants involves three different pathways with a whole set of glycosyl- and sulfo-transferases. Due to their wide structural diversity forming a combinatory of carbohydrate determinants as well as their location at the surface of the airways, mucins are involved in multiple interactions with microorganisms and are very important in the protection of the underlying airway mucosa. Airway mucins are oversulfated in cystic fibrosis and this feature has been considered as being linked to a primary defect of the disease. However, a similar pattern is observed in mucins from patients suffering from chronic bronchitis when they are severely infected. Airway mucins from severely infected patients suffering either from cystic fibrosis or from chronic bronchitis are also highly sialylated, and highly express sialylated and sulfated Lewis x determinants, a feature which may reflect severe mucosal inflammation or infection. These determinants are potential sites of attachment for Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the pathogen responsible for most of the morbidity and mortality in cystic fibrosis, and the expression of the sulfo- and glycosyl-transferases involved in their biosynthesis is increased by TNFalpha. In summary, airway inflammation may simultaneously induce the expression of mucin genes (MUC2 and MUC5AC) and the expression of several glycosyl- and sulfo-transferases, therefore modifying the combinatory glycosylation of these molecules.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carbohydrate Conformation
  • Carbohydrate Sequence
  • Cystic Fibrosis / metabolism*
  • Glycosylation
  • Humans
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mucins / chemistry
  • Mucins / metabolism
  • Mucins / physiology*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / metabolism*
  • Transferases / metabolism


  • Mucins
  • Transferases