In the field of biochemistry, N-linked glycosylation is the attachment of a sugar molecule (a process known as glycosylation) to a nitrogen atom in an amino acid residue in a protein. This type of linkage is important for both the structure and function of some eukaryotic proteins. The N-linked glycosylation process occurs in eukaryotes and widely in archaea, but very rarely in bacteria.
In Eukaryotes, most N-linked oligosaccharides begin with addition of a 1,4-sugar precursor to an asparagine in the polypeptide chain of the target protein. The structure of this precursor is common to most eukaryotes, and contains 3 glucose, 9 mannose, and 2 N-acetylglucosamine molecules. A complex set of reactions attaches this branched chain to a carrier molecule called dolichol pyrophosphate, and then it is transferred to the appropriate point on the polypeptide chain as it is translocated into the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum.
There are three major classes of N-linked saccharides resulting from this core: high-mannose oligosaccharides, complex oligosaccharides and hybrid oligosaccharides.
- High-mannose is, in essence, just two N-acetylglucosamines with many mannose residues, often almost as many as are seen in the precursor oligosaccharides before it is attached to the protein.
- Complex oligosaccharides are so named because they can contain almost any number of the other types of saccharides, including more than the original two N-acetylglucosamines.
- Hybrid oligosaccharides contain a mannose residues on one side of the branch, while on the other side a N-acetylglucosamine initiates a complex branch.
Proteins can be glycosylated by both types of oligosaccharides on different portions of the protein. Whether an oligosaccharide is high-mannose or complex is thought to depend on its accessibility to saccharide-modifying proteins in the Golgi. If the saccharide is relatively inaccessible, it will most likely stay in its original high-mannose form. If it is accessible, then it is likely that many of the mannose residues will be cleaved off and the saccharide will be further modified by the addition of other types of group as discussed above.
The oligosaccharide chain is attached by oligosaccharyltransferase to asparagine occurring in the tripeptide sequence Asn-X-Ser or Asn-X-Thr where X could be any amino acid except Pro. This sequence is known as a glycosylation sequon. After attachment, the three glucose residues are removed from the chain during protein folding (via the Calnexin/Calreticulin pathway) and the protein is available for export from the ER. The glycoprotein thus formed is then transported to the Golgi where removal of further mannose residues may take place. However, glycosylation itself does not seem to be as necessary for correct transport targeting of the protein, as one might think. Studies involving drugs that block certain steps in glycosylation, or mutant cells deficient in a glycosylation enzyme, still produce otherwise-structurally-normal proteins that are correctly targeted, and this interference does not seem to interfere severely with the viability of the cells. Mature glycoproteins may contain a variety of oligomannose N-linked oligosaccharides containing between 5 and 9 mannose residues. Further removal of mannose residues leads to a 'core' structure containing 3 mannose, and 2 N-acetylglucosamine residues (termed Paucimannose), which may then be elongated with a variety of different monosaccharides including galactose, N-acetylglucosamine, N-acetylgalactosamine, fucose and sialic acid.
GalNAc, glucose, and rhamnose linked to asparagines have been observed as well, although mostly in less complex organisms or bacteria.
Glucose linked to the guanidinium group of arginine in sweet corn amyelogenin is the only reported example of N-linked glycosylation on an amino acid other than asparagine.
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