Role of mucins in the function of the corneal and conjunctival epithelia

Int Rev Cytol. 2003:231:1-49. doi: 10.1016/s0074-7696(03)31001-0.


The surface of the eye is covered by a tear film, which is held in place by a wet-surfaced, stratified, corneal and conjunctival epithelia. Both are vital for light refraction and protection of vision. Maintenance of tear film on the ocular surface, lubrication, and provision of a pathogen barrier on this wet surface is facilitated by a class of large, highly glycosylated, hydrophilic glycoproteins--the mucins. In the past 15 years, a number of mucin genes have been cloned, and based on protein sequence, categorized as either secreted or membrane associated. Both types of mucins are expressed by ocular surface epithelia. Goblet cells intercalated within the stratified epithelium of the conjunctiva secrete the large gel-forming mucin MUC5AC, and lacrimal gland epithelia secrete the small soluble mucin MUC7. Apical cells of the stratified epithelium of both corneal and conjunctival epithelium express at least three membrane-associated mucins (MUCs 1, 4, and 16), which extend from their apical surface to form the thick glycocalyx at the epithelium-tear film interface. The current hypothesis regarding mucin function and tear film structure is that the secreted mucins form a hydrophilic blanket that moves over the glycocalyx of the ocular surface to clear debris and pathogens. Mucins of the glycocalyx prevent cell-cell and cell-pathogen adherence. The expression and glycosylation of mucins are altered in drying, keratinizing ocular surface diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure
  • Conjunctiva / metabolism*
  • Conjunctiva / ultrastructure
  • Cornea / metabolism*
  • Cornea / ultrastructure
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cells / ultrastructure
  • Glycocalyx / metabolism
  • Glycosylation
  • Humans
  • Mucins / metabolism*
  • Retinal Perforations / metabolism


  • Mucins