Trace elements in human physiology and pathology: zinc and metallothioneins

Biomed Pharmacother. 2003 Nov;57(9):399-411. doi: 10.1016/s0753-3322(03)00081-7.


Zinc is one of the most abundant nutritionally essential elements in the human body. It is found in all body tissues with 85% of the whole body zinc in muscle and bone, 11% in the skin and the liver and the remaining in all the other tissues. In multicellular organisms, virtually all zinc is intracellular, 30-40% is located in the nucleus, 50% in the cytoplasm, organelles and specialized vesicles (for digestive enzymes or hormone storage) and the remainder in the cell membrane. Zinc intake ranges from 107 to 231 micromol/d depending on the source, and human zinc requirement is estimated at 15 mg/d. Zinc has been shown to be essential to the structure and function of a large number of macromolecules and for over 300 enzymic reactions. It has both catalytic and structural roles in enzymes, while in zinc finger motifs, it provides a scaffold that organizes protein sub-domains for the interaction with either DNA or other proteins. It is critical for the function of a number of metalloproteins, inducing members of oxido-reductase, hydrolase ligase, lyase family and has co-activating functions with copper in superoxide dismutase or phospholipase C. The zinc ion (Zn(++)) does not participate in redox reactions, which makes it a stable ion in a biological medium whose potential is in constant flux. Zinc ions are hydrophilic and do not cross cell membranes by passive diffusion. In general, transport has been described as having both saturable and non-saturable components, depending on the Zn(II) concentrations involved. Zinc ions exist primarily in the form of complexes with proteins and nucleic acids and participate in all aspects of intermediary metabolism, transmission and regulation of the expression of genetic information, storage, synthesis and action of peptide hormones and structural maintenance of chromatin and biomembranes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Diet
  • Humans
  • Metallothionein / metabolism*
  • Zinc / deficiency
  • Zinc / pharmacokinetics
  • Zinc / physiology*


  • Metallothionein
  • Zinc