In the past decade, there has been an explosion of interest in hyaluronan, an often misunderstood, biochemically simple, yet functionally complex carbohydrate polymer that is a resident of many extracellular matrices. Previously thought of as a passive, space-filling component of the extracellular matrix, the so-called "goo" concept, hyaluronan has risen to a much higher regard in recent years, even being called "magic glue" in a recent perspective. Hyaluronan is likely to be the common thread in many morphogenetic processes, including condensation events and epithelial-to-mesenchymal transformation. Hyaluronan is comparatively unique as a component of the extracellular matrix as it is solely composed of carbohydrate. In order to truly understand this biopolymer, one must first understand its biosynthesis, then understand its uptake and turnover, then identify its binding proteins and receptors. Major advances have been made in all of these arenas within the past decade. Hyaluronan synthases, hyaluronidases, and the hyaladherins have been molecularly identified and cloned. Furthermore, many have now been inactivated, employing gene targeting strategies, to create mice deficient in the respective gene product function. Collectively, huge strides have been made in our understanding of the diverse biological functions for this fascinating molecule. Hyaluronan appeared in metazoans immediately prior to the arrival of the vertebrates, and may be required for the differentiation, development, and/or function of most cell lineages, structures, and tissues that we associate with vertebrates, such as the neural crest, the skeleton, including the teeth, skin, and hair, and the chambered heart. In this review, we will update the reader on the advances of the past decade and provide insight into those morphogenetic processes through which hyaluronan regulates vertebrate development.
Copyright 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.