Glycoprotein – Definition, Structure, Functions, Examples

What is Glycoprotein?

  • Glycoproteins are intricate macromolecules characterized by the covalent linkage of amino acid and carbohydrate chains. These entities are ubiquitously present in nature and exhibit a vast array of functions. They belong to the category of glycoconjugates, which also encompasses glycolipids.
  • At the molecular level, glycoproteins are proteins with oligosaccharide chains covalently attached to specific amino acid side-chains. This attachment, termed glycosylation, can occur either during the translational phase of protein synthesis or post-translationally.
  • The significance of glycosylation is underscored by its prevalence in secreted extracellular proteins and in protein segments that extend outside the cell. Furthermore, many integral membrane proteins are glycoproteins, playing pivotal roles in cell-to-cell interactions.
  • It is imperative to differentiate between the glycosylation that occurs in the endoplasmic reticulum, part of the secretory system, and the reversible glycosylation observed in the cytosol and nucleus. The latter involves the addition of a single GlcNAc residue and is thought to be a regulatory mechanism analogous to phosphorylation.
  • On the other hand, classical secretory glycosylation is often structurally vital. For instance, inhibiting N-linked glycosylation can disrupt proper glycoprotein folding. Disruption in glycan processing, which transpires in both the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus, can lead to congenital disorders of glycosylation in humans.
  • There are multiple types of glycoproteins, with N-linked and O-linked glycoproteins being the most prevalent. The nomenclature is derived from their distinct structural attributes. The vast compositional diversity of glycoproteins enables them to form a range of compounds, from antibodies to hormones. This functional diversity has spurred interest in the medical synthesis of glycoproteins, with advancements in recombination and protein glycosylation techniques.
  • Another form of glycosylation, O-GlcNAc, is observed on nucleocytoplasmic proteins. Glycoproteins are essentially proteins covalently bonded to carbohydrates, with the carbohydrate component being added during or post protein synthesis.
  • These carbohydrates, termed oligosaccharides, are polymers comprising 3 to 10 monosaccharides. In humans, these oligosaccharides can be composed of various sugars, including hexoses like glucose, galactose, and mannose; deoxyhexose such as fucose; and others like N-acetyl neuraminic acid and amino hexoses.
  • The cellular membrane houses proteins that can interact with the cell’s environment. The term “glyco” denotes “sugar,” and any protein with an attached carbohydrate is classified as a glycoprotein. These proteins have their polypeptide side chains covalently linked to an oligosaccharide chain, or glycan. This linkage can be established during protein translation or post-translationally.
  • Glycoconjugates are the result of carbohydrates binding to proteins and lipids. They manifest in three primary forms: glycoproteins, glycolipids, and proteoglycans.
  • The distinction lies in the predominant component: glycoproteins have a higher protein content, while proteoglycans are carbohydrate-rich. Glycolipids result from carbohydrates binding to lipids. The Golgi apparatus is the primary cellular site for the synthesis of glycoproteins and glycolipids.

Definition of Glycoprotein

A glycoprotein is a complex molecule composed of a protein covalently bonded to one or more carbohydrate chains, playing diverse roles in biological processes and cell-to-cell interactions.

Glycoprotein Structure

Mucin structure
Mucin structure
  • Glycoproteins are intricate macromolecules characterized by the covalent linkage of a protein to a carbohydrate moiety, specifically termed as a glycan. This carbohydrate component, often referred to as an oligosaccharide, can constitute anywhere from one to eighty percent of the entire glycoprotein structure. Prior to its association with the protein, this carbohydrate entity is identified as a glycosyl group.
  • The formation of a glycosyl group arises from the removal of a hydroxyl group (-OH) from a monosaccharide within a polysaccharide chain. This removal creates an unstable site on the monosaccharide. To stabilize this structure, thirteen known monosaccharides can attach to eight distinct amino acids. The hydroxyl group of the corresponding amino acid compensates for the glycosyl group’s lost -OH.
  • The process of appending a glycosyl group to a peptide chain, protein, or lipid is termed glycosylation. Remarkably, over half of human proteins undergo glycosylation. This post-translational modification predominantly occurs in the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus of eukaryotic cells.
  • Two primary glycosylation pathways exist: the first involves the attachment of an oligosaccharide to the asparagine amino acid of a polypeptide chain, while the second associates a glycan with either serine (N-linked glycosylation) in the endoplasmic reticulum or threonine (O-linked glycosylation) in the Golgi apparatus.
  • The intricacy of glycosylation necessitates the involvement of multiple enzymes. In the absence of enzymatic intervention, the process is termed glycation. Additionally, the bond between the sugar and protein can be severed through a process known as deglycosylation. Notably, while glycans assist in protein folding, deglycosylation does not necessarily disrupt the protein’s structure or function.
  • A quintessential feature of glycoproteins is the covalent bonding of oligosaccharides to the protein. Common monosaccharides in mammalian glycans encompass glucose, fucose, xylose, mannose, galactose, N-acetylglucosamine, glucuronic acid, iduronic acid, N-acetylgalactosamine, and sialic acid. These glycans strategically attach to specific regions of the protein’s amino acid sequence.
  • Glycoproteins are typically categorized into N-linked and O-linked types. In N-linked glycoproteins, the glycan bonds to the nitrogen of an asparagine amino acid within the protein sequence. Conversely, O-linked glycoproteins feature a sugar bonded to the oxygen atom of either a serine or threonine amino acid.
  • The composition of glycoproteins can vary significantly, with the carbohydrate content ranging from 1% to 70% of the total glycoprotein mass. These molecules are prevalent in various cellular locations, including the blood, extracellular matrix, and plasma membrane, and constitute a significant portion of eukaryotic cell secretions. Their functional diversity spans from antibodies to hormones.
  • The field of glycomics delves into the study of cellular carbohydrate components. While not exclusive to glycoproteins, glycomics can elucidate the structure and function of various glycoproteins.
  • One objective of this discipline is to pinpoint glycosylated proteins and determine the specific sites of glycosylation within the amino acid sequence. Historically, mass spectrometry has been instrumental in characterizing glycoprotein structures and their attached carbohydrate chains.
  • In essence, glycoproteins are distinguished by their hydrophilic nature, attributed to the -OH groups of sugars, which influences their tertiary structure folding. Based on the carbohydrate attachment site on an amino acid, glycoproteins are classified into N-linked and O-linked categories, each with its unique glycosylation process and cellular location.
N-linked and O-linked glycoproteins
N-linked and O-linked glycoproteins

Methods used to study glycoproteins

Glycoproteins, with their intricate structures and multifaceted roles in biological systems, necessitate advanced methodologies for their detection, purification, and structural analysis. The following elucidates some of the pivotal techniques employed in glycoprotein research:

  1. Periodic acid-Schiff stain: This method identifies glycoproteins as pink bands post-electrophoretic separation, providing a visual representation of their presence.
  2. Radioactive Decay Bands: By incubating cultured cells with glycoproteins, radioactive decay bands emerge. This allows for the detection of a radioactive sugar subsequent to electrophoretic separation.
  3. Endo- or Exoglycosidase Treatment: Treating glycoproteins with specific endo- or exoglycosidases or phospholipases can lead to shifts in electrophoretic migration. Such shifts are instrumental in distinguishing between proteins with N-glycan, O-glycan, or GPI linkages. Additionally, they can differentiate between high mannose and complex N-glycans.
  4. Lectin Affinity Techniques: Techniques such as agarose-lectin column chromatography and lectin affinity chromatography are employed to purify glycoproteins or glycopeptides that exhibit binding affinity to specific lectins.
  5. Lectin Affinity Electrophoresis: This method discerns and characterizes glycoforms—variants of a glycoprotein with differing carbohydrate structures—based on shifts in electrophoretic migration.
  6. Compositional Analysis: Post acid hydrolysis, this method identifies and determines the stoichiometry of sugars present in the glycoprotein.
  7. Mass Spectrometry: A powerful tool that offers insights into the molecular mass, composition, sequence, and occasionally, the branching of a glycan chain. It’s also adept at site-specific glycosylation profiling.
  8. NMR Spectroscopy: Employed to pinpoint specific sugars, their sequences, linkages, and the anomeric nature of glycosidic chains.
  9. Multi-angle Light Scattering: In tandem with various techniques like size-exclusion chromatography, this method provides data on molecular mass, protein-carbohydrate ratio, aggregation state, and sometimes, glycan chain branching.
  10. Dual Polarisation Interferometry: This technique measures the underlying mechanisms of biomolecular interactions, encompassing reaction rates, affinities, and associated conformational shifts.
  11. Methylation Analysis: Essential for determining the linkage between sugars.
  12. Amino Acid or cDNA Sequencing: This method is pivotal for the determination of the amino acid sequence of glycoproteins.

In summation, the study of glycoproteins, given their complexity and significance in biological systems, demands a suite of advanced methodologies. These techniques, both individually and in conjunction, provide comprehensive insights into the structure, function, and interactions of glycoproteins.

Proteoglycan vs Glycoprotein

Proteoglycans and glycoproteins are both vital components in cellular biology, each playing distinct roles in various physiological processes. While they share similarities, primarily being conjugates of proteins and carbohydrates, they exhibit distinct structural and functional differences.

Note the position of the proteoglycan component
Note the position of the proteoglycan component
  1. Basic Definition:
    • Proteoglycan: A proteoglycan is a specific type of glycoprotein predominantly found in cell membranes, mucus, and connective tissues. It is occasionally referred to as a mucoprotein due to its presence in mucus-rich areas.
    • Glycoprotein: Glycoproteins are proteins that have carbohydrates (often in the form of oligosaccharides) covalently attached to their polypeptide chains.
  2. Composition:
    • Proteoglycan: Comprises core proteins covalently bonded to glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). GAGs are long, unbranched polysaccharides containing a repeating disaccharide unit.
    • Glycoprotein: Contains one or more carbohydrate chains covalently attached to a polypeptide backbone. The carbohydrate content is generally lesser than that in proteoglycans.
  3. Structural Representation:
    • Proteoglycan: A notable representation of proteoglycans is in the cartilage matrix, where they are abundant and play a crucial role in providing structural integrity.
    • Glycoprotein: Found in various parts of the cell, including the cell membrane, where they play roles in cell-cell recognition and signaling.
  4. Classification:
    • Proteoglycan: It falls under the broader category of glycoproteins and is specifically characterized by its association with glycosaminoglycans.
    • Glycoprotein: Glycoproteins are a subset of the larger group known as glycoconjugates. This group encompasses glycoproteins, glycopeptides, peptidoglycans, glycolipids, and lipopolysaccharides.
  5. Occurrence:
    • Proteoglycan: Predominantly found in the extracellular matrix of connective tissues, contributing to the tissue’s resilience and flexibility.
    • Glycoprotein: Ubiquitous in nature, they can be found on cell surfaces, in the cytoplasm, and secreted into bodily fluids.
  6. Unique Characteristics:
    • Peptidoglycans: A distinct category related to this discussion, peptidoglycans (or mureins), are exclusive to bacteria. They reside in the bacterial cell wall and comprise carbohydrate backbones with short amino acid chains (oligopeptides). They provide structural support to bacteria and facilitate passive transport.

In conclusion, while proteoglycans and glycoproteins both play pivotal roles in cellular and physiological processes, they differ in their composition, structure, and function. Recognizing these differences is crucial for understanding their respective roles in biology and medicine.

Peptidoglycans – only found on bacterial cell walls
Peptidoglycans – only found on bacterial cell walls

Functions of Glycoprotein

Glycoproteins, characterized by the covalent linkage of carbohydrate chains to proteins, are integral to a myriad of cellular processes. Their multifaceted roles span across various physiological systems, underscoring their significance in maintaining homeostasis and facilitating vital biological functions.

  1. Cell Membrane Composition: Glycoproteins are integral components of the cell membrane’s lipid bilayer. Their hydrophilic nature enables them to function effectively in aqueous environments, facilitating chemical bonding and mediating cell-cell recognition.
  2. Tissue Stabilization: On the cellular front, glycoproteins are pivotal in cross-linking proteins, such as collagen, with cells. This interaction fortifies and stabilizes tissues, ensuring structural integrity.
  3. Plant Structural Support: In the botanical realm, glycoproteins present in plant cells confer resistance to gravitational forces, providing structural support.
  4. Immune Surveillance: White blood cells patrol blood vessels, scouting for potential pathogens. Their adherence to the blood vessel lining is mediated by lectin-type glycoproteins, ensuring vigilant immune surveillance.
  5. Neurological Role: Within the neural framework, glycoproteins are found in the brain’s grey matter, collaborating with synaptosomes and axons, playing a role in neural communication.
  6. Blood Coagulation: The hemostatic system relies on glycoproteins such as thrombin, prothrombin, and fibrinogen to facilitate blood clotting, preventing excessive bleeding.
  7. Blood Typing: The glycoproteins present on red blood cells determine blood types. For instance, type A blood cells possess A antigens or A glycoproteins, enabling the immune system to recognize the blood as self, preventing autoimmunity.
  8. Reproductive Function: Fertilization is facilitated by glycoproteins, which enable sperm cells to adhere to the egg’s surface, ensuring successful reproduction.
  9. Mucosal Protection: Mucins, a class of glycoproteins, are constituents of mucus. These molecules safeguard the epithelial surfaces across various systems, including the digestive, respiratory, reproductive, and urinary tracts.
  10. Immunological Response: Glycoproteins play a pivotal role in immune responses. The specificity of an antibody to bind to a particular antigen is contingent upon the carbohydrate present in the glycoprotein. Furthermore, surface glycoproteins on immune cells, such as B and T cells, facilitate antigen binding.
  11. Skin Integrity: The skin’s robustness is maintained by glycoproteins present on the surface of epithelial cells. These molecules aid in binding skin cells cohesively, forming a protective barrier. Additionally, cadherin, another glycoprotein, contributes to skin stability.

In conclusion, glycoproteins are indispensable to a plethora of physiological processes, ranging from cellular communication to tissue stabilization and immune responses. Their diverse roles underscore their significance in ensuring the proper functioning of biological systems.

Examples of Glycoprotein

Glycoproteins, characterized by the covalent linkage of carbohydrate chains to proteins, are integral to a multitude of biological processes. Their diverse structures and functionalities are evident in various physiological systems. Here, we delve into some of the most significant examples of glycoproteins in humans:

  1. Serum Glycoproteins: The human blood plasma, or serum glycoproteome, comprises hundreds of glycoproteins. Notable examples include:
    • Cartilage Oligomeric Matrix Protein (COMP): An inflammatory marker associated with arthritis.
    • Hepatocyte Growth Factor Activator (HGFA): Linked to fibrosis. Abnormal levels of specific serum glycoproteins can indicate genetic mutations or the presence of diseases.
  2. Zona Pellucida Glycoproteins: Essential for human reproduction, the zona pellucida surrounding egg cells regulates sperm-egg interactions. It comprises four glycoproteins (ZP1 to ZP4), with mutations in ZP1 often linked to infertility.
  3. Cartilage Glycoproteins: Elevated levels of the glycoprotein YKL-40 have been implicated in improper cartilage remodeling in osteoarthritis patients. These glycoproteins aid in forming a robust fibrous network in cartilage.
  4. Mucin-Type Glycoproteins: Predominantly found in the airway, digestive system, and other regions, mucins are glycoproteins that form a protective barrier. They play roles in hydration, lubrication, and enzyme activity, with many mucins containing antimicrobial enzymes.
  5. Glycoprotein Hormones: These include:
    • Follicle-stimulating hormone
    • Luteinizing hormone
    • Thyroid-stimulating hormone The glycan chain’s length can influence the half-life of these hormones, affecting their metabolic rate and elimination.
  6. Immune Glycoproteins: The immune system employs receptors like galectins, C-type lectins, and SIGLECs to recognize surface membrane glycoproteins. For instance, the coronavirus spike glycoprotein influences the production of specific immune receptors, affecting the body’s immune response.
  7. Beta-2 Glycoprotein 1 Antibodies: These autoimmunoglobulins lead the body to attack its cells, affecting blood clotting. The presence of such antibodies is linked to spontaneous blood clot formation.
  8. Glycoprotein IIb IIIa Inhibitors: These inhibitors play a role in blood clotting. By blocking specific glycoprotein receptors, they prevent platelets from forming clots. Medications based on this mechanism are used in certain coronary artery procedures.

In essence, glycoproteins are pivotal in various physiological processes, from reproduction and immune responses to blood clotting and tissue remodeling. Their diverse functionalities underscore the complexity of biological systems and the importance of glycoproteins in maintaining human health.


What is the primary characteristic of glycoproteins?
a) They contain only proteins.
b) They contain both carbohydrate chains and proteins.
c) They contain only lipids.
d) They contain both nucleic acids and proteins.


Which process describes the addition of a carbohydrate to a protein?
a) Hydrolysis
b) Glycation
c) Glycosylation
d) Deglycosylation

Where does glycosylation primarily occur in eukaryotic cells?
a) Mitochondria
b) Nucleus
c) Endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus
d) Lysosomes


Which of the following is NOT a function of glycoproteins?
a) Cell-to-cell recognition
b) Enzymatic catalysis
c) Energy storage
d) Immune response

Which amino acid is involved in N-linked glycosylation?
a) Serine
b) Threonine
c) Asparagine
d) Glycine

The ABO blood typing system is based on which type of molecule present on red blood cells?
a) Lipids
b) Glycoproteins
c) Nucleic acids
d) Simple proteins

Which component of the egg is essential for sperm-egg interaction and is a type of glycoprotein?
a) Yolk
b) Albumin
c) Zona pellucida
d) Chalaza

Which glycoprotein is crucial for blood coagulation?
a) Hemoglobin
b) Fibrinogen
c) Insulin
d) Keratin

What is the primary role of glycoproteins present in the mucus?
a) Digestion
b) Protection of epithelial surfaces
c) Oxygen transport
d) Muscle contraction

Which of the following is NOT a common monosaccharide found in mammalian glycans?
a) Glucose
b) Fucose
c) Ribose
d) Mannose


What are glycoproteins?

Glycoproteins are complex molecules formed by the covalent linkage of carbohydrate chains to proteins, playing essential roles in various biological processes.

Where are glycoproteins found in the cell?

Glycoproteins can be found in various parts of the cell, including the cell membrane, the endoplasmic reticulum, and the Golgi apparatus.

How are glycoproteins formed?

Glycoproteins are formed through a process called glycosylation, where carbohydrate chains are covalently attached to specific amino acids on proteins.

Why are glycoproteins important in the immune system?

Glycoproteins play a pivotal role in the immune system, aiding in cell-to-cell recognition, antigen binding, and immune responses.

What is the difference between N-linked and O-linked glycosylation?

N-linked glycosylation involves attaching a carbohydrate to the nitrogen atom of an asparagine amino acid, while O-linked glycosylation involves attaching a carbohydrate to the oxygen atom of serine or threonine amino acids.

How do glycoproteins contribute to blood typing?

The ABO blood typing system is based on the presence of specific glycoproteins (antigens) on the surface of red blood cells, determining an individual’s blood type.

Are glycoproteins involved in fertilization?

Yes, glycoproteins in the zona pellucida of the egg play a crucial role in sperm-egg interaction, facilitating fertilization.

Can glycoproteins be used in medical treatments?

Due to their diverse functions, glycoproteins have potential applications in medical treatments, especially in areas related to immune responses and targeted drug delivery.

What role do glycoproteins play in connective tissues?

Glycoproteins in connective tissues help mediate interactions between tissue fibers and the ground substance, ensuring structural integrity and functionality.

How are glycoproteins studied in research?

The field of glycomics focuses on studying the carbohydrate components of cells, including glycoproteins. Techniques like mass spectrometry are often used to determine glycoprotein structures and characterize their attached carbohydrate chains.

  1. Engelking, L. R. (2015). Glycoproteins and Glycolipids. Textbook of Veterinary Physiological Chemistry, 130–135. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-391909-0.50020-7
  2. Berg, Jeremy M.; Tymoczko, John L.; and Stryer, Lubert (2002). Biochemistry, 5th edition. New York: W. H. Freeman.
  3. Voet, Donald; Voet, Judith G.; and Pratt, Charlotte W. (2002). Fundamentals of Biochemistry, updated edition. New York: Wiley.

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