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Protein N-Glycosylation: Molecular Genetics And Functional Significance

M.A. Kukuruzinska, K. Lennon

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Protein N-glycosylation is a metabolic process that has been highly conserved in evolution. In all eukaryotes, N-glycosylation is obligatory for viability. It functions by modifying appropriate asparagine residues of proteins with oligosaccharide structures, thus influencing their properties and bioactivities. N-glycoprotein biosynthesis involves a multitude of enzymes, glycosyltransferases, and glycosidases, encoded by distinct genes. The majority of these enzymes are transmembrane proteins that function in the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus in an ordered and well-orchestrated manner. The complexity of N-glycosylation is augmented by the fact that different asparagine residues within the same polypeptide may be modified with different oligosaccharide structures, and various proteins are distinguished from one another by the characteristics of their carbohydrate moieties. Furthermore, biological consequences of derivatization of proteins with N-glycans range from subtle to significant. in the past, all these features of N-glycosylation have posed a formidable challenge to an elucidation of the physiological role for this modification. Recent advances in molecular genetics, combined with the availability of diverse in vivo experimental systems ranging from yeast to transgenic mice, have expedited the identification, isolation, and characterization of N-glycosylation genes. As a result, rather unexpected information regarding relationships between N-glycosylation and other cellular functions-including secretion, cytoskeletal organization, proliferation, and apoptosis-has emerged. Concurrently, increased understanding of molecular details of N-glycosylation has facilitated the alignment between N-glycosylation deficiencies and human diseases, and has highlighted the possibility of using N-glycan expression on cells as potential determinants of disease and its progression. Recent studies suggest correlations between N-glycosylation capacities of cells and drug sensitivities, as well as susceptibility to infection. Therefore, knowledge of the regulatory features of N-glycosylation may prove useful in the design of novel therapeutics. While facing the demanding task of defining properties, functions, and regulation of the numerous, as yet uncharacterized, N-glycosylation genes, glycobiologists of the 21st century offer exciting possibilities for new approaches to disease diagnosis, prevention, and cure.