Front Biosci. 2017 Jan 1;22:580-595.

Go Fly a Chitin: The Mystery of Chitin and Chitinases in Vertebrate Tissues.

Stern R.
Department of Basic Biomedical Sciences, Touro-Harlem College of Osteopathic Medicine, 230 West-125th Street, New York, NY 10027, USA,


A controversy arose decades ago whether the DG42 gene product expressed during frog embryogenesis synthesized hyaluronan or chitin. Both sets of investigators were correct. It is now possible to understand how prescient those findings were. Synthesis of a seven to nine chitin sugar chain fragment is required before hyaluronan synthesis begins. Thus, DG42 indeed synthesizes both hyaluronan and chitin. Hyaluronan turns over rapidly in vertebrate tissues, but chitin oligomers are difficult to degrade. They accumulate and can cause pathology. Chitin is a simple beta-linked repeating sugar homopolymer found prominently in the building block structures of fungi, molluscs, arthropods, and other forms of invertebrate life. It is a highly resistant insoluble material requiring chitin synthases for production and chitinases for degradation. Mysteriously, chitins and chitinases also occur in vertebrate tissues, while it had previously been assumed that no chitins were contained therein. That assumption is now challenged based on recent biochemical evidence. Chitin does accumulate in many tissues, but may be particularly toxic to neurons. Its accumulation in the brain may account for the cognitive decline found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The DG42 observations together with the participation of chitins and chitinases in several human diseases, among which in addition to Alzheimer’s disease include Gaucher’s disease, asthma, and aspects of abnormal immune recognition justify a reexamination of these topics. The purpose of this review is to summarize data in order to place chitins and their attendant enzymes in a rational framework in an attempt to create a cohesive story.