Metals on the move: zinc ions in cellular regulation and in the coordination dynamics of zinc proteins

Biometals. 2011 Jun;24(3):411-8. doi: 10.1007/s10534-010-9406-1. Epub 2011 Jan 11.


Homeostatic control maintains essential transition metal ions at characteristic cellular concentrations to support their physiological functions and to avoid adverse effects. Zinc is especially widely used as a catalytic or structural cofactor in about 3000 human zinc proteins. In addition, the homeostatic control of zinc in eukaryotic cells permits functions of zinc(II) ions in regulation and in paracrine and intracrine signaling. Zinc ions are released from proteins through ligand-centered reactions in zinc/thiolate coordination environments, and from stores in cellular organelles, where zinc transporters participate in zinc loading and release. Muffling reactions allow zinc ions to serve as signaling ions (second messengers) in the cytosol that is buffered to picomolar zinc ion concentrations at steady-state. Muffling includes zinc ion binding to metallothioneins, cellular translocations of metallothioneins, delivery of zinc ions to transporter proteins, and zinc ion fluxes through cellular membranes with the result of removing the additional zinc ions from the cytosol and restoring the steady-state. Targets of regulatory zinc ions are proteins with sites for transient zinc binding, such as membrane receptors, enzymes, protein-protein interactions, and sensor proteins that control gene expression. The generation, transmission, targets, and termination of zinc ion signals involve proteins that use coordination dynamics in the inner and outer ligand spheres to control metal ion association and dissociation. These new findings establish critically important functions of zinc ions and zinc metalloproteins in cellular control.

MeSH terms

  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Metalloproteins / chemistry
  • Metalloproteins / metabolism*
  • Metals / chemistry
  • Metals / metabolism*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Zinc / chemistry
  • Zinc / metabolism*


  • Metalloproteins
  • Metals
  • Zinc