Induction, regulation, degradation, and biological significance of mammalian metallothioneins

Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2000;35(1):35-70. doi: 10.1080/10409230091169168.


MTs are small cysteine-rich metal-binding proteins found in many species and, although there are differences between them, it is of note that they have a great deal of sequence and structural homology. Mammalian MTs are 61 or 62 amino acid polypeptides containing 20 conserved cysteine residues that underpin the binding of metals. The existence of MT across species is indicative of its biological demand, while the conservation of cysteines indicates that these are undoubtedly central to the function of this protein. Four MT isoforms have been found so far, MT-1, MT-2, MT-3, and MT-4, but these also have subtypes with 17 MT genes identified in man, of which 10 are known to be functional. Different cells express different MT isoforms with varying levels of expression perhaps as a result of the different function of each isoform. Even different metals induce and bind to MTs to different extents. Over 40 years of research into MT have yielded much information on this protein, but have failed to assign to it a definitive biological role. The fact that multiple MT isoforms exist, and the great variety of substances and agents that act as inducers, further complicates the search for the biological role of MTs. This article reviews the current knowledge on the biochemistry, induction, regulation, and degradation of this protein in mammals, with a particular emphasis on human MTs. It also considers the possible biological roles of this protein, which include participation in cell proliferation and apoptosis, homeostasis of essential metals, cellular free radical scavenging, and metal detoxification.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Metallothionein / physiology*
  • Metals / metabolism
  • Protein Isoforms / physiology


  • Metals
  • Protein Isoforms
  • Metallothionein