Glycosylation is a common posttranslational modification of proteins and lipids of the secretory pathway that generates binding sites for galactose-specific lectins or galectins. Branching of Asn-linked (N-)glycans by the N-acetylglucosaminyltransferases (Mgat genes) increases affinity for galectins. Both tissue-specific expression of the enzymes and the metabolic supply of sugar-nucleotides to the ER and Golgi regulate glycan distribution while protein sequences specify NXS/T site multiplicity, providing metabolic and genetic contributions to galectin-glycoprotein interactions. Galectins cross-link glycoproteins forming dynamic microdomains or lattices that regulate various mediators of cell adhesion, migration, proliferation, survival and differentiation. There are a similar number of galactose-specific galectins in C. elegans and humans, but expression of higher-affinity branched N-glycans are a more recent feature of vertebrate evolution. Galectins might be considered a reading code for repetition of the minimal units of binding [Gal(NAc)β1-3/4GlcNAc] and NXS/T site multiplicity in proteins. The rapidly evolving and structurally complex Golgi modifications to surface receptors are interpreted through affinity for the lattice, which regulates receptor levels as a function of the cellular environment, and thereby the probability of various cell fates. Many important questions remain concerning the regulation of the galectins, the glycan ligands and lattice interaction with other membrane domains and endocytic pathways.
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