Colonic glycoprotein composition was evaluated in monozygotic twins with inflammatory bowel disease using ion-exchange chromatography. Fifty-three individuals, 12 pairs and 1 single twin with ulcerative colitis and 14 pairs with Crohn's disease, were evaluated. Seven twin pairs were concordant for the presence of ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, whereas twin siblings of 10 ulcerative colitis probands and 9 Crohn's disease probands were not known to have inflammatory bowel disease. Content of one chromatographically defined component of colonic mucin, designated HCM species IV, was reduced in both patients with ulcerative colitis (1040 +/- 300 cpm/10,000 cpm total HCM) and their apparently healthy twins (1340 +/- 540 cpm/10,000 cpm total HCM) compared with control subjects (4030 +/- 1,000 cpm/10,000 cpm total HCM). Composition of mucin in Crohn's disease patients and their nonaffected twins was not significantly different than in controls. These observations suggest that altered profiles of mucin glycoprotein may be present before the onset of ulcerative colitis and may be genetically defined. Conversely, it appears that alterations in glycoproteins only are not sufficient to initiate mucosal inflammation.