Heparan sulphate and heparin are chemically related alpha β-linked glycosaminoglycans composed of alternating sequences of glucosamine and uronic acid. The amino sugars may be N-acetylated or N-sulphated, and the latter substituent is unique to these two polysaccharides. Although there is general agreement that heparan sulphate is usually less sulphated than heparin, reproducible differences in their molecular structure have been difficult to identify. We suggest that this is because most of the analytical data have been obtained with degraded materials that are not necessarily representative of complete polysaccharide chains. In the present study intact heparan sulphates, labelled biosynthetically with [3H]glucosamine and Na2(35)SO4, were isolated from the surface membranes of several types of cells in culture. The polysaccharide structure was analysed by complete HNO2 hydrolysis followed by fractionation of the products by gel filtration and high-voltage electrophoresis. Results showed that in all heparan sulphates there were approximately equal numbers of N-sulpho and N-acetyl substituents, arranged in a similar, predominantly segregated, manner along the polysaccharide chain. O-Sulphate groups were in close proximity to the N-sulphate groups but, unlike the latter, the number of O-sulphate groups could vary considerably in heparan sulphates of different cellular origins ranging from 20 to 75 O-sulphate groups per 100 disaccharide units. Inspection of the published data on heparin showed that the N-sulphate frequency was very high (greater than 80% of the glucosamine residues are N-sulphated) and the concentration of O-sulphate groups exceeded that of the N-sulphate groups. We conclude from these and other observations that heparan sulphate and heparin are separate families of N-sulphated glycosaminoglycans.

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