History of lectins: from hemagglutinins to biological recognition molecules

Glycobiology. 2004 Nov;14(11):53R-62R. doi: 10.1093/glycob/cwh122. Epub 2004 Jun 30.


The occurrence in nature of erythrocyte-agglutinating proteins has been known since the turn of the 19th century. By the 1960s it became apparent that such proteins also agglutinate other types of cells, and that many of them are sugar-specific. These cell-agglutinating and sugar-specific proteins have been named lectins. Although shown to occur widely in plants and to some extent also in invertebrates, very few lectins had been isolated until the early 1970s, and they had attracted little attention. This attitude changed with the demonstration that lectins are extremely useful tools for the investigation of carbohydrates on cell surfaces, in particular of the changes that the latter undergo in malignancy, as well as for the isolation and characterization of glycoproteins. In subsequent years numerous lectins have been isolated from plants as well as from microorganisms and animals, and during the past two decades the structures of hundreds of them have been established. Concurrently, it was shown that lectins function as recognition molecules in cell-molecule and cell-cell interactions in a variety of biological systems. Here we present a brief account of 100-plus years of lectin research and show how these proteins have become the focus of intense interest for biologists and in particular for the glycobiologists among them.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affinity Labels / history
  • Affinity Labels / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Hemagglutinins / chemistry
  • Hemagglutinins / history*
  • Hemagglutinins / metabolism*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Lectins / chemistry
  • Lectins / history*
  • Lectins / metabolism*
  • Mitogens / pharmacology


  • Affinity Labels
  • Hemagglutinins
  • Lectins
  • Mitogens