Functions of zinc in signaling, proliferation and differentiation of mammalian cells

Biometals. Sep-Dec 2001;14(3-4):331-41. doi: 10.1023/a:1012905406548.


Zinc is essential for cell proliferation and differentiation, especially for the regulation of DNA synthesis and mitosis. On the molecular level, it is a structural constituent of a great number of proteins, including enzymes of cellular signaling pathways and transcription factors. Zinc homeostasis in eukaryotic cells is controlled on the levels of uptake, intracellular sequestration in zinc storing vesicles ('zincosomes'), nucleocytoplasmic distribution and elimination. These processes involve the major zinc binding protein metallothionein as a tool for the regulation of the cellular zinc level and the nuclear translocation of zinc in the course of the cell cycle and differentiation. In addition, there is also increasing evidence for a direct signaling function for zinc on all levels of signal transduction. Zinc can modulate cellular signal recognition, second messenger metabolism, protein kinase and protein phosphatase activities, and it may stimulate or inhibit activities of transcription factors, depending on the experimental systems studied. Zinc has been shown to modify specifically the metabolism of cGMP, the activities of protein kinase C and mitogen activated protein kinases, and the activity of transcription factor MTF-1 which controls the transcription of the genes for metallothionein and the zinc transporter ZnT-1. As a conclusion of these observations new hypotheses regarding regulatory functions of zinc ions in cellular signaling pathways are proposed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Calcium Signaling / physiology
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology*
  • Cell Division / physiology*
  • Cyclic AMP / metabolism
  • Cyclic GMP / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Metallothionein / metabolism
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Protein Kinase C / chemistry
  • Protein Kinase C / metabolism
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Zinc / metabolism*


  • Transcription Factors
  • Metallothionein
  • Cyclic AMP
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • Protein Kinase C
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases
  • Cyclic GMP
  • Zinc