Sulfomucins in the human body

Arie V. Nieuw Amerongen, Jan G.M. Bolscher, E. Bloemena, Enno C.I. Veerman

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Mucins are widely distributed in mucous secretion fluids or are associated with plasma membranes. Up to now 9 genes of epithelial mucins have been identified, distributed over five chromosomes. Superposed on the genetic diversity, each type of mucin displays heterogeneity in oligosaccharide composition, including the terminal sugar residues. On top of that there is variation between individuals brought about by blood group antigens. Heterogeneity is further incited by the degree of sulfation. This tremendous structural heterogeneity endows mucin molecules with properties suggestive for a multifunctional role. The major biological function assigned to mucins is still the protection of tissues covered by the mucous gel. Current knowledge on the specific biological functions of the sulfate residues is fragmentary and periphrastic. Glycosylation including sulfation appears to be subject to modification under pathological conditions. There is evidence that sulfation rate-limits bacterial degradation of mucins. Moreover, accumulating data focus towards their involvement in recognition phenomena. Sulfate residues on blood group related structures provoke specific epitopes for selective interaction with microorganisms e.g. Helicobacter pylori. A distinct class of mucins acts as ligands for selectins, crucial in cellular recognition processes like cellular homing of lymphocytes. Whereas in earlier days mucins were only seen as water-binding molecules, protecting the underlying mucosa against harmful agents, the current picture of these molecules is characterized by the selective interaction with their environment, including epithelial-, and endothelial cells and microorganisms, thereby regulating a great number of biological processes. However, the specific role of sulfate remains to be further elucidated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalBiological chemistry
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1998


  • Glycosylation
  • Mucins
  • Selectins
  • Sialic acid
  • Sulfation

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