Little is known about whether the properties of respiratory mucins are altered as a result of airway irritation, but histochemical studies of respiratory tract secretory cells show a more ‘acidic’ staining pattern after exposure to tobacco smoke. Furthermore it has been suggested that proteoglycans are the major glycoconjugates in ‘normal’ respiratory secretions, whereas mucins predominate in sputum. To investigate these observations further, mucins from secretions collected from the tracheal surface of healthy non-smoking ‘normal’ subjects and sputum from patients with chronic bronchitis were compared. All samples contained one major mucin population after density-gradient centrifugation, and a small amount of ‘denser’ mucin was present in some chronic bronchitic and one of the ‘normal’ samples. Proteoglycans were not a major component of ‘normal’ secretions. The major mucin population from chronic bronchitic samples had molecular masses between 10 and 30 MDa and behaved as random coils in solution. Whole mucins from ‘normal’ individuals and chronic bronchitic patients were excluded from Sepharose CL-2B, whereas reduced subunits were included. Proteolysis of subunits yielded two populations of high-molecular-mass glycopeptides differing in size, suggesting the presence of two different tandem repeat regions in the mucins. Finally, mucins from patients with chronic bronchitis are less, rather than more, acidic than those from ‘normal’ individuals. Mucins from bronchitic sputum and ‘normal’ secretions are thus similar in their macromolecular properties, but differ slightly in charge density.

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