Glycoconjugate composition of colorectal goblet cell mucin was characterized according to the anatomical distribution of lectin-binding sites in mucosal biopsies from 35 control subjects and 55 patients with inflammatory bowel disease. 24 of the controls had mucosal inflammation on biopsy, without clinical evidence of inflammatory bowel disease. These inflamed controls showed a similar rate of presence of lectin-binding sites as the normal noninflamed group. In the controls, the frequency of binding of Ricinus communis agglutinin I to galactosyl residues was consistently higher than that found with either Ulex europaeus agglutinin I to fucosyl or Dolichus biflorus agglutinin to N-acetyl galactosyl groups. A significant proximal to distal gradient for Ulex europaeus agglutinin I binding sites was identified in the controls group. These binding sites were present four times more often in the proximal colon than in the distal colon (P less than 0.025). In the ulcerative and Crohn's colitis groups, this gradient effect was lost, predominantly as a result of decreased availability of fucosyl residues in the proximal colon. In the descending colon of Crohn's colitis tissues, there was a complete absence of Dolichus biflorus agglutinin binding sites compared with the 62.5% incidence in the control group (P less than 0.05). These results demonstrate that the expression of lectin-binding sites in human large intestinal goblet mucin is specifically altered in inflammatory bowel disease, indicating that there are changes in glycosylation of colorectal mucin consistent with alterations in goblet cell differentiation.