Previous studies have indicated that CD44 isoforms, spliced with variant exons, are heterogeneously glycanated with chondroitin sulphate and heparan sulphate chains. Because such alternative splicing may regulate divergent biological effects of the specific isoforms, we analysed the consequences of this process on the composition and structure of the chondroitin-sulphate chains. Recombinant chimaeras were engineered with and without exons V3-10 or V3,8-10 and expressed as Ig fusion proteins in COS cells. In addition, the chondroitin sulphates of wild-type isoforms were contrasted with those of isoforms mutated with serine-to-alanine codon substitutions at a putative Ser-Gly-Ser-Gly glycosaminoglycan acceptor site within exon V3. The chondroitin sulphates contained both 4- and 6-sulphated galactosamine residues, although there was a high content of non-sulphated galactosamine-containing repeat units. Splicing of exons V4-7, which contain no Ser-Gly consensus motifs, resulted in increased glycanation with chondroitin-sulphate chains, as well as increased sulphation levels of the polymers. Comparison of wild-type and acceptor-site mutant isoforms showed that chondroitin-sulphate content declined by more than 60-80% in the mutant, indicating that assembly of chondroitin-sulphate chains occurs there, and a general decrease in the sulphation level of the remaining chains was observed. Undersulphation of the recombinant chondroitin sulphates was shown by parallel analyses with native human keratinocyte CD44 molecules and is most probably an artifact of transient expression in COS cells. Our data indicate that combinatorial exon splicing exerts complex and distal effects on glycanation patterns and structure, which presumably modulate those functions that may be mediated though the chondroitin-sulphate moieties, such as motility and matrix invasion.

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