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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 17, 2023
  2. Membrane-associated mucins protect epithelial cell surfaces against pathogenic threats by serving as nonproductive decoys that capture infectious agents and clear them from the cell surface and by erecting a physical barrier that restricts their access to target receptors on host cells. However, the mechanisms through which mucins function are still poorly defined because of a limited repertoire of tools available for tailoring their structure and composition in living cells with molecular precision. Using synthetic glycopolymer mimetics of mucins, we modeled the mucosal glycocalyx on red blood cells (RBCs) and evaluated its influence on lectin (SNA) and virus (H1N1) adhesion to endogenous sialic acid receptors. The glycocalyx inhibited the rate of SNA and H1N1 adhesion in a size- and density-dependent manner, consistent with the current view of mucins as providing a protective shield against pathogens. Counterintuitively, increasing the density of the mucin mimetics enhanced the retention of bound lectins and viruses. Careful characterization of SNA behavior at the RBC surface using a range of biophysical and imaging techniques revealed lectin-induced crowding and reorganization of the glycocalyx with concomitant enhancement in lectin clustering, presumably through the formation of a more extensive glycan receptor patch at the cell membrane. Our findings indicate thatmore »glycan-targeting pathogens may exploit the biophysical and biomechanical properties of mucins to overcome the mucosal glycocalyx barrier.« less