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Anat Rec. 2002 Nov 1;268(3):317-26.

Evolution of glycosaminoglycans and their glycosyltransferases: Implications for the extracellular matrices of animals and the capsules of pathogenic bacteria.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Oklahoma Center for Medical Glycobiology, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City 73104, USA.


Glycosaminoglycans (linear polysaccharides with a repeating disaccharide backbone containing an amino sugar) are essential components of extracellular matrices of animals. These complex molecules play important structural, adhesion, and signaling roles in mammals. Direct detection of glycosaminoglycans has been reported in a variety of organisms, but perhaps more definitive tests for the glycosyltransferase genes should be utilized to clarify the distribution of glycosaminoglycans in metazoans. Recently, glycosyltransferases that form the hyaluronan, heparin/heparan, or chondroitin backbone were identified at the molecular level. The three types of glycosyltransferases appear to have evolved independently based on sequence comparisons and other characteristics. All metazoans appear to possess heparin/heparan. Chondroitin is found in some worms, arthropods, and higher animals. Hyaluronan is found only in two of the three main branches of chordates. The presence of several types of glycosaminoglycans in the body allows multiple communication channels and adhesion systems to operate simultaneously. Certain pathogenic bacteria produce extracellular coatings, called capsules, which are composed of glycosaminoglycans that increase their virulence during infection. The capsule helps shield the microbe from the host defenses and/or modulates host physiology. The bacterial and animal polysaccharides are chemically identical or at least very similar. Therefore, no immune response is generated, in contrast to the vast majority of capsular polymers from other bacteria. In microbial systems, it appears that in most cases functional convergent evolution of glycosaminoglycan glycosyltransferases occurred, rather than direct horizontal gene transfer from their vertebrate hosts.

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