Cohen, M., Varki, N. M., Jankowski, M. D., Gagneux, P.  J. Vis. Exp. (67), e3928, doi:10.3791/3928 (2012).

Mucins are complex and heavily glycosylated O-linked glycoproteins, which contain more than 70% carbohydrate by weight(1-3). Secreted mucins, produced by goblet cells and the gastric mucosa, provide the scaffold for a micrometers-thick mucus layer that lines the epithelia of the gut and respiratory tract(3,4). In addition to mucins, mucus layers also contain antimicrobial peptides, cytokines, and immunoglobulins(5-9). The mucus layer is an important part of host innate immunity, and forms the first line of defense against invading microorganisms(8,10-12). As such, the mucus is subject to numerous interactions with microbes, both pathogens and symbionts, and secreted mucins form an important interface for these interactions. The study of such biological interactions usually involves histological methods for tissue collection and staining. The two most commonly used histological methods for tissue collection and preservation in the clinic and in research laboratories are: formalin fixation followed by paraffin embedding, and tissue freezing, followed by embedding in cryo-protectant media. Paraffin-embedded tissue samples produce sections with optimal qualities for histological visualization including clarity and well-defined morphology. However, during the paraffin embedding process a number of epitopes become altered and in order to study these epitopes, tissue sections have to be further processed with one of many epitope retrieval methods(13). Secreted mucins and lipids are extracted from the tissue during the paraffin-embedding clearing step, which requires prolong incubation with organic solvents (xylene or Citrisolv). Therefore this approach is sub-optimal for studies focusing on the nature and distribution of mucins and mucus in vivo. In contrast, freezing tissues in Optimal Cutting Temperature (OCT) embedding medium avoids dehydration and clearing of the sample, and maintains the sample hydration. This allows for better preservation of the hydrated mucus layer, and thus permits the study of the numerous roles of mucins in epithelial biology. As this method requires minimal processing of the tissue, the tissue is preserved in a more natural state. Therefore frozen tissues sections do not require any additional processing prior to staining and can be readily analyzed using immunohistochemistry methods. We demonstrate the preservation of micrometers-thick secreted mucus layer in frozen colon samples. This layer is drastically reduced when the same tissues are embedded in paraffin. We also demonstrate immunofluorescence staining of glycan epitopes presented on mucins using plant lectins. The advantage of this approach is that it does not require the use of special fixatives and allows utilizing frozen tissues that may already be preserved in the laboratory.