Sulfide, the first inorganic substrate for human cells

FASEB J. 2007 Jun;21(8):1699-706. doi: 10.1096/fj.06-7407com. Epub 2007 Feb 21.


Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is produced inside the intestine and is known as a poison that inhibits cellular respiration at the level of cytochrome oxidase. However, sulfide is used as an energetic substrate by many photo- and chemoautotrophic bacteria and by animals such as the lugworm Arenicola marina. The concentrations of sulfide present in their habitats are comparable with those present in the human colon. Using permeabilized colonic cells to which sulfide was added by an infusion pump we show that the maximal respiratory rate of colonocyte mitochondria in presence of sulfide compares with that obtained with succinate or L-alpha-glycerophosphate. This oxidation is accompanied by mitochondrial energization. In contrast, other cell types not naturally exposed to high concentration of sulfide showed much lower oxidation rates. Mitochondria showed a very high affinity for sulfide that permits its use as an energetic substrate at low micromolar concentrations, hence, below the toxic level. However, if the supply of sulfide exceeds the oxidation rate, poisoning renders mitochondria inefficient and our data suggest that an anaerobic mechanism involving partial reversion of Krebs cycle already known in invertebrates takes place. In conclusion, this work provides additional and compelling evidence that sulfide is not only a toxic compound. According to our study, sulfide appears to be the first inorganic substrate for mammalian cells characterized thus far.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Respiration
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Citric Acid Cycle
  • Colon / cytology*
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen Sulfide / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Sulfides / metabolism


  • Sulfides
  • Hydrogen Sulfide