In humans and mice, the first line of innate defense against inhaled pathogens and particles in the respiratory tract is airway mucus. The primary solid components of the mucus layer are the mucins MUC5AC and MUC5B, polymeric glycoproteins whose changes in abundance and structure can dramatically affect airway defense. Accordingly, MUC5AC/Muc5ac and MUC5B/Muc5b are tightly regulated at a transcriptional level by tissue-specific transcription factors in homeostasis and in response to injurious and inflammatory triggers. In addition to modulated levels of mucin gene transcription, translational and post-translational biosynthetic processes also exert significant influence upon mucin function. Mucins are massive macromolecules with numerous functional domains that contribute to their structural composition and biophysical properties. Single MUC5AC and MUC5B apoproteins have molecular masses of >400 kDa, and von Willebrand factor D-like as well as other cysteine-rich domain segments contribute to mucin polymerization and flexibility, thus increasing apoprotein length and complexity. Additional domains serve as sites for O-glycosylation, which increase further mucin mass several-fold. Glycosylation is a defining process for mucins that is specific with respect to additions of glycans to mucin apoprotein backbones, and glycan additions influence the physical properties of the mucins via structural modifications as well as charge interactions. Ultimately, through their tight regulation and complex assembly, airway mucins follow the biological rule of ‘form fits function’ in that their structural organization influences their role in lung homeostatic mechanisms.

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