What are Glycosaminoglycans?

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  • Written By: Maggie J. Hall
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2019
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Glycosaminoglycans or GAGs are long sugar carbohydrate chains found in numerous cells in the human body. They perform a variety of functions. Under normal circumstances, the body routinely breaks down polysaccharides to prevent overabundance, and enzymes typically metabolize these complex sugars at the end of a cell’s lifespan. The presence of certain genetic disorders known as lysosomal storage diseases, render the body unable to perform this process. Researchers study GAGs and their function in various disease processes.

Polysaccharide building blocks connected by other molecules and forming thousands of chain variations make up GAGs. The majority of GAGs in the body are non-protein hyaluronic acids, while others include chondroitin and heparan sulfate molecules. These GAGs play a large part in cellular development, repair and replacement. The chains are vital constituents for the development of many systems in the body, including corneas, cartilage and tendons, skin and connective tissue.

Chondroitin-sulfate–containing glycosaminoglycans are necessary for brain, cartilage and tissue development in addition to ensuring neuronal synapse stability. Heparan sulfate chains participate in developmental processes and blood vessel regeneration along with regulating blood-coagulating properties. Both are present during inflammatory processes, and researchers believe a lack of chondroitin contributes to arthritic changes. Many believe chondroitin supplements improve joint mobility by enhancing lubrication.


Interstitial fluid and the gel-like substances found in the body also contain glycosaminoglycans called mucopolysaccharides, which regulate the viscosity of fluids and enable tissues to retain moisture and maintain proper shape. Proper hydration ensures that these interstitial chains function adequately. During the natural aging process, a lack of these vital fluids contributes to the loss of elastin and collagen, which causes the appearance of lines and wrinkles. Many cosmetic products incorporate hyaluronic acid in an attempt to replace the GAGs the body no longer manufactures.

As with cellular components, the body regularly eliminates or replaces Glycosaminoglycans daily, but some people lack this ability. Persons having mucopolysaccharidosis or genetic lysosomal storage disorders either have insufficient supplies of particular enzymes or entirely lack the enzymes required to disassemble GAGs as needed. The diseases are progressive and in time, allow abnormal glycosaminoglycan accumulations, which result in multi-system symptoms. The accumulations cause an altered physical appearance, diminished cognition, skeletal changes and organ enlargement.

Lipopolysaccharides are GAG components of bacterial cell membranes. The lipid blocks of these chains form the endotoxins that can produce illness. By obtaining a better understanding of these GAG chains, researchers develop the knowledge to combat how bacteria escape immune system recognition or develop resistance to antibiotics. Mucopolysaccharide research also provides insight into malignant tissue development.


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Post 2

Carbohydrate chains consist of sugars, starches or a combination of the two.

Post 1

"....sugar carbohydrate chains...", as written in the first sentence, is a tautology!

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