Considerable advances have been made in recent years in our understanding of the biochemistry of mucin-type glycoproteins. This class of compounds is characterized mainly by a high level of O-linked oligosaccharides. Initially, the glycoproteins were solely known as the major constituents of mucus. Recent studies have shown that mucins from the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, salivary glands, sweat glands, breast, and tumor cells are structurally related to high-molecular-weight glycoproteins, which are produced by epithelial cells as membrane proteins. During mucin synthesis, an orchestrated sequence of events results in giant molecules of Mr 4 to 6 x 10(6), which are stored in mucous granules until secretion. Once secreted, mucin forms a barrier, not only to protect the delicate epithelial cells against the extracellular environment, but also to select substances for binding and uptake by these epithelia. This review is designed to critically examine relations between structure and function of the different compounds categorized as mucin glycoproteins.