The role of N-glycosylation in the function of human acetylcholinesterase (HuAChE) was examined by site-directed mutagenesis (Asn to Gln substitution) of the three potential N-glycosylation sites Asn-265, Asn-350 and Asn-464. Analysis of HuAChE mutants, defective in a single or multiple N-glycosylation sites, by expression in transiently or stably transfected human embryonal 293 kidney cells suggests the following. (a) All three AChE glycosylation signals are utilized, but not all the secreted molecules are fully glycosylated. (b) Glycosylation at all sites is important for effective biosynthesis and secretion; extracellular AChE levels in mutants defective in one, two or all three sites amounted to 20-30%, 2-4% and about 0.5% of wild-type level respectively. (c) Some glycosylation mutants display impaired stability, as reflected by increased susceptibility to heat inactivation; substitution of Asn-464 has the most pronounced effect on thermostability. (d) Abrogation of N-glycosylation has no detectable effect on the enzyme activity of HuAChE; all glycosylation mutants, including the triple mutant, hydrolyse acetylthiocholine efficiently, displaying Km, kcat. and kcat./Km values similar to those of the wild-type enzyme. (e) In most mutants, inhibition profiles with edrophonium and bisquaternary ammonium ligands are identical with those of wild-type enzyme; the Asn-350 mutants, however, exhibit a slight decrease in their affinity towards these ligands. (f) Elimination of oligosaccharide side chains has no detectable effect on the surface-related 'peripheral-site' functions; like the wild-type enzyme, all mutants were inhibited by propidium and by increased concentrations of acetylthiocholine.