Previous studies have shown that human small-intestinal mucin consists of high-Mr glycoproteins and a smaller S-S-bonded protein of 118 kDa. The major antigenic determinants of the mucin were associated with the large glycoproteins, but depended for stability on intact disulphide bonds, and were destroyed by digestion with Pronase. In the present study we isolated and analysed the component parts of mucin from patients with cystic fibrosis with special attention being paid to the peptide constituents. After reduction with 0.2 M-beta-mercaptoethanol [5 min, 100 degrees C in 1% SDS (sodium dodecyl sulphate)], the large glycoproteins and smaller peptide with an apparent molecular size of 118 kDa were separated by equilibrium density-gradient centrifugation in CsCl, Sepharose 4B chromatography or preparative SDS/polyacrylamide-gel electrophoresis. The large glycoproteins contained about 70% of the protein of the native mucin. Digestion with Pronase resulted in a further loss of ‘naked’ protein (10% of the native mucin protein) from the C-terminal end of the glycoprotein peptide core, and left behind highly glycosylated proteins comprised mainly (70 mol%) of threonine, serine and proline. The 118 kDa component, which contained about 30% of the native mucin protein, consisted mainly of aspartic acid, serine, glutamic acid and glycine (40 mol%), plus threonine, proline, alanine, valine and leucine (35 mol%). Together with the ‘naked’ protein segment, the 118 kDa component contained most of the cysteine residues of the native mucin. Surprisingly, the peptide also contained carbohydrate (less than or equal to 5% of the native mucin carbohydrate but 50% by weight of the 118 kDa component), which included 9 mol% mannose, suggesting the presence of N-linked oligosaccharides. The peptide exhibited strong non-covalent interactions with the high-Mr glycoproteins and a tendency to self-aggregate in the absence of dissociating agents. Our findings therefore suggest that native mucin consists of large glycoproteins capable of forming disulphide bridges from their C-terminal ‘naked’ (antigenic) regions to a smaller glycopeptide having an Mr of 118 000.

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