Chemical Biology of Reactive Sulfur Species: Hydrolysis-Driven Equilibrium of Polysulfides as a Determinant of Physiological Functions

Antioxid Redox Signal. 2022 Feb;36(4-6):327-336. doi: 10.1089/ars.2021.0170. Epub 2022 Jan 4.


Significance: Polysulfide species (i.e., R-Sn-R', n > 2; and R-Sn-H, n > 1) exist in many organisms. The highly nucleophilic nature of hydropersulfides and hydropolysulfides contributes to the potent antioxidant activities of polysulfide species that protect organisms against oxidative and electrophilic stresses. Recent Advances: Accumulating evidence suggests that organic polysulfides (R-Sn-R') readily undergo alkaline hydrolysis, which results in formation of both nucleophilic hydrosulfide/polysulfide (R-Sn-1H) and electrophilic sulfenic acid (R'SOH) species. Polysulfides maintain a steady-state equilibrium that is driven by hydrolysis even in aqueous physiological milieus. This unique property makes polysulfide chemistry and biology more complex than previously believed. Critical Issues: The hydrolysis equilibrium of polysulfides shifts to the right when electrophiles are present. Strong electrophilic alkylating agents (e.g., monobromobimane) greatly enhance polysulfide hydrolysis, which leads to increased polysulfide degradation and artifactual formation of bis-S-bimane adducts in the absence of free hydrogen sulfide. The finding that hydroxyl group-containing substances such as tyrosine efficiently protected polysulfides from hydrolysis led to development of the new alkylating agent, N-iodoacetyl l-tyrosine methyl ester (TME-IAM). TME-IAM efficiently and specifically traps and stabilizes hydropolysulfides and protects polysulfide chains from hydrolysis, and, when used with mass spectrometry, TME-IAM allows speciation of the reactive sulfur metabolome. In addition, the polyethylene glycol-conjugated maleimide-labeling gel shift assay, which relies on unique hydrolysis equilibrium of polysulfides, will be a reliable technique for proteomics of polysulfide-containing proteins. Future Directions: Using precise methodologies to achieve a better understanding of the occurrence and metabolism of polysulfide species is necessary to gain insights into the undefined biology of polysulfide species. Antioxid. Redox Signal. 36, 327-336.

Keywords: electrophile; hydrolysis equilibrium; nucleophile; persulfide; polysulfide; reactive sulfur species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bridged Bicyclo Compounds
  • Hydrolysis
  • Proteomics
  • Sulfides* / metabolism
  • Sulfur* / metabolism


  • Bridged Bicyclo Compounds
  • Sulfides
  • Sulfur
  • polysulfide
  • monobromobimane