Gas chromatographic (GC), mass spectrometric (MS), lectin binding and enzymatic analyses of the carbohydrates from Giardia cyst walls, intact cysts and trophozoites were performed to investigate the carbohydrate composition of Giardia cyst walls and to test the hypothesis that the Giardia cyst wall is composed largely of chitin. Galactosamine, verified by MS, was present in Giardia cyst walls and intact cysts (ca. 47 nmol 10(-6) cysts). Since not even trace amounts of it were detected in trophozoites by either GC or lectin binding, galactosamine is hypothesized to be a cyst wall-specific amino hexose. Based on the putative binding affinity of Phaseolus limensis lectin, galactosamine may be present in cyst walls as N-acetylgalactosamine. Neither glucosamine nor sialic acid were detected in as much as 11 mg dry weight of cysts, cyst walls, or trophozoites. Glucose, the most abundant carbohydrate, and ribose were detected in Giardia cysts and trophozoites. Galactose (ca. 10 nmol 10(-6) cysts) was detected in cysts but not in trophozoites. The lack of detectable levels of (1) glucosamine in cyst wall hydrolysates, (2) cyst staining by Calcofluor M2R, (3) endogenous chitinase activity and (4) N-acetylglucosamine when cysts served as a substrate for exogenous chitinase suggests that the Giardia cyst wall is not composed largely of chitin as previously reported. beta-N-Acetylgalactosaminidase, EC 18.104.22.168, activity was detected in cysts and trophozoites and represents the first carbohydrate splitting hydrolase detected in Giardia.