Mechanisms of arsenic biotransformation

Toxicology. 2002 Dec 27;181-182:211-7. doi: 10.1016/s0300-483x(02)00285-8.


Inorganic arsenic, a documented human carcinogen, is methylated in the body by alternating reduction of pentavalent arsenic to trivalent and addition of a methyl group from S-adenosylmethionine. Glutathione, and possibly other thiols, serve as reducing agents. The liver is the most important site of arsenic methylation, but most organs show arsenic methylating activity. The end metabolites are methylarsonic acid (MMA) and dimethylarsinic acid (DMA). These are less reactive with tissue constituents than inorganic arsenic and readily excreted in the urine. However, reactive intermediates may be formed. Absorbed arsenate (As(V)) is fairly rapidly reduced in blood to As(III), which implies increased toxicity. Also, intermediate reduced forms of the methylated metabolites, MMA(III) and DMA(III), have been detected in human urine. In particular MMA(III) is highly toxic. To what extent MMA(III) and DMA(III) contribute to the observed toxicity following exposure to inorganic arsenic remains to be elucidated. There are marked differences in the metabolism of arsenic between mammalian species, population groups and individuals. There are indications that subjects with low MMA in urine have faster elimination of ingested arsenic, compared to those with more MMA in urine.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arsenicals / pharmacokinetics*
  • Biotransformation
  • Continental Population Groups
  • Humans
  • Methylation
  • Oxidation-Reduction


  • Arsenicals