During growth and differentiation the plasma membrane has a key role not only in the reception and transmission of extracellular signals such as hormones and growth factors, but also in communicating cellular response to the cellular microenvironment. Cellular response to trophic stimuli includes alterations of cell shape and cell surface antigenicity, of cell-cell recognition and cellular adhesion, of cell matrix binding and the adaptation of cell surface receptors. The plasma membrane is therefore regarded as a 'central agency' for the integration of a single cell into the complex system of a tissue or of an organism. The numerous functions of the plasma membrane are mainly mediated by membrane integrated glycoproteins or glycolipids both sharing the common feature of covalently bound oligosaccharide side chains. Specific alterations of oligosaccharide structure and metabolism associated with growth, differentiation and various pathologic conditions suggest a specific role for the oligosaccharide moieties in the regulation of cell surface functions (Table 1). This review intends to focus on the role of plasma membrane glycoproteins describing briefly principles of glycoprotein structure and function, and characteristics of their biosynthesis and degradation.
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