Mucus is a slimy material and has many vital functions at the interface between the body and the outside world. It coats the cells that line the genital tract, guts, and lungs, where it provides acts as a lubricant and a barrier against harmful substances. In the gut, mucus also serves as a gatekeeper, admitting beneficial microorganisms and excluding pathogens.
The mucus is made up of mucins, which are proteins decorated with distinctive patterns of sugar molecules. These provide a food source for bacteria and act as anchors to hold them in place when they bind adhesins (molecules in bacterial cell walls). Mucins are secreted into fluids such as tears and saliva by binding to pathogens’ adhesins and preventing these microbes from clumping together and can also dissolve the pathogen’s biofilms.
Biofilms are a cluster of bacteria that have collaborated to form thin coatings on teeth and other tissue surfaces—biofilms, in some cases, harm health. How the body interacts with microorganisms is determined by the patterns of sugar molecules on mucins. Mucins are difficult to isolate, and because of this how they work, research has been limited.
A team of researchers has developed a method to create human mucins that display particular patterns of sugar molecules. At the Copenhagen Center for Glycomics, a team led by researchers to produce mucins that bind to specific bacterial adhesins can now genetically program laboratory cultures of human embryonic kidney cells. The authors believe that doctors prescribe mucins one day to either inhibit disease-causing species or promote beneficial species’ growth.
According to Yoshiki Narimatsu, an associate professor of glycobiology at the University of Copenhagen and one of the study’s lead authors, “An incredible number of diseases have a connection to the intestinal flora, but we still know very little about how we can control the intestinal flora in the treatment of diseases. This is where synthetic mucins could open up new treatment options. Ultimately, one can imagine using mucins as a prebiotic material, that is, as molecules that help the good bacteria in the body.”
The researcher also said that artificial mucins could be used instead of antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. Mucins could even be brought into effective action to compete with the common flu virus and stop it from infecting cells that line the lungs, windpipe, and nose.