Among the trace elements, zinc is one of the most used elements in biological systems. Zinc is found in the structure of more than 2700 enzymes, including hydrolases, transferases, oxyreductases, ligases, isomerases, and lyases. Not surprisingly, it is present in almost all body cells. Preserving the stability and integrity of biological membranes and ion channels, zinc is also an intracellular regulator and provides structural support to proteins during molecular interactions. It acts as a structural element in nucleic acids or other gene-regulating proteins. Metallothioneins, the low molecular weight protein family rich in cysteine groups, are involved significantly in numerous physiological and pathological processes including particularly oxidative stress. A critical role of metallothioneins (MT) is to bind zinc with high affinity and to serve as an intracellular zinc reservoir. By releasing free intracellular zinc when needed, MTs mediate the unique physiological roles of zinc. MT expression is induced by zinc elevation, and thus, zinc homeostasis is maintained. That MT mediates the effects of zinc, besides having strong radical scavenging effects, points to the critical part it plays in oxidative stress. The present review aims to give information on metallothioneins, which have critical importance in the metabolism and molecular pathways of zinc.
Keywords: Metabolism; Metallothioneins; Physiological functions; Zinc.