Lectins, a class of sugar-binding and cell-agglutinating proteins, are ubiquitous in Nature, being found in all kinds of organisms, from viruses to humans. This review describes how plant lectins were developed as widely used reagents for the study of glycoconjugates in solution and on cells, and for cell characterization and separation. A summary is then given of the discoveries that demonstrated the role of lectins as cell recognition molecules of micro-organisms and of animal cells. The specialized functions of these lectins are discussed, as well as the potential medical applications of the knowledge gained. The review ends with speculations about future developments in lectin research and applications.

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