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The most abundant heteropolysaccharides in the body are the glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). These molecules are long unbranched polysaccharides containing a repeating disaccharide unit. The disaccharide units contain either of two modified sugars--- N-acetylgalactosamine (GalNAc) or N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) and a uronic acid such as glucuronate or iduronate. GAGs are highly negatively charged molecules, with extended conformation that imparts high viscosity to the solution. GAGs are located primarily on the surface of cells or in the extracellular matrix (ECM). Along with the high viscosity of GAGs comes low compressibility, which makes these molecules ideal for a lubricating fluid in the joints. At the same time, their rigidity provides structural integrity to cells and provides passageways between cells, allowing for cell migration. The specific GAGs of physiological significance are hyaluronic acid, dermatan sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, heparin, heparan sulfate, and keratan sulfate.


Proteoglycans and GAGs perform numerous vital functions within the body, some of which still remain to be studied. One well-defined function of the GAG heparin is its role in preventing coagulation of the blood. Heparin is abundant in granules of mast cells that line blood vessels. The release of heparin from these granules, in response to injury, and its subsequent entry into the serum leads to an inhibition of blood clotting, in the following manner. Free heparin complexes with and activates antithrombin III, which in turn inhibits all the serine proteases of the coagulation cascade. This phenomenon has been clinically exploited in the use of heparin injection for anti-coagulation therapies.