Ubiquitous occurrence in Nature, abundant presence at strategically important places such as the cell surface and dynamic shifts in their profile by diverse molecular switches qualifies the glycans to serve as versatile biochemical signals. However, their exceptional structural complexity often prevents one noting how simple the rules of objective-driven assembly of glycan-encoded messages are. This review is intended to provide a tutorial for a broad readership. The principles of why carbohydrates meet all demands to be the coding section of an information transfer system, and this at unsurpassed high density, are explained. Despite appearing to be a random assortment of sugars and their substitutions, seemingly subtle structural variations in glycan chains by a sophisticated enzymatic machinery have emerged to account for their specific biological meaning. Acting as ‘readers’ of glycan-encoded information, carbohydrate-specific receptors (lectins) are a means to turn the glycans’ potential to serve as signals into a multitude of (patho)physiologically relevant responses. Once the far-reaching significance of this type of functional pairing has become clear, the various modes of spatial presentation of glycans and of carbohydrate recognition domains in lectins can be explored and rationalized. These discoveries are continuously revealing the intricacies of mutually adaptable routes to achieve essential selectivity and specificity. Equipped with these insights, readers will gain a fundamental understanding why carbohydrates form the third alphabet of life, joining the ranks of nucleotides and amino acids, and will also become aware of the importance of cellular communication via glycan–lectin recognition.
The human colonic cell line PC/AA was grown to near confluency over 24 days and labelled with [ 14 C]proline and [ 3 H]glucose over the last 48 h in culture. The cell layer was extracted with 6 M guanidinium chloride and the mature fully glycosylated mucins were isolated at a density of 1.45 g/ml by using density-gradient centrifugation in CsCl/4 M guanidinium chloride. These mucins were identified as MUC2 with an anti-peptide antibody. The macromolecules were fragmented by reduction into two distinct populations of MUC2 subunits as assessed by agarose electrophoresis. The MUC2 mucin was polydisperse in length, ranging from 500 nm to many microns and its molecular-mass distribution, assessed by rate-zonal centrifugation, ranged from 5×10 6 to 40×10 6 Da. However, the metabolically labelled MUC2 mucins, though found throughout the whole distribution, were of much smaller average size. Since the entire distribution is not uniformly radiolabelled over 48 h, the formation of the largest species must be preceded by glycosylation and occur slowly, over several days, via the assembly of fully glycosylated units which are likely to be at least dimers [Asker, Baeckstrom, Axelsson, Carlstedt, and Hansson (1995) Biochem. J. 308 , 873–880].