, Volume 25, Issue 6, pp 770-780

Airway mucus: its components and function

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The airway surface liquid (ASL), often referred to as mucus, is a thin layer of fluid covering the luminal surface of the airway. The major function of mucus is to protect the lung through mucociliary clearance against foreign particles and chemicals entering the lung. The mucus is comprised of water, ions, and various kinds of macromolecules some of which possess the protective functions such as anti-microbial, anti-protease, and anti-oxidant activity. Mucus glycoproteins or mucins are mainly responsible for the viscoelastic property of mucus, which is crucial for the effective mucociliary clearance. There are at least eight mucin genes identified in the human airways, which will potentially generate various kinds of mucin molecules. At present, neither the exact structures of mucin proteins nor their regulation are understood although it seems likely that different types of mucins are involved in different functions and might also be associated with certain airway diseases. The fact that mucins are tightly associated with various macromolecules present in ASL seems to suggest that the defensive role of ASL is determined not only by these individual components but rather by a combination of these components. Collectively, mucins in ASL may be compared to aircraft carriers carrying various types of weapons in defense of airborne enemies.