Cadmium hijacks the high zinc response by binding and activating the HIZR-1 nuclear receptor

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Oct 19;118(42):e2022649118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2022649118.


Cadmium is an environmental pollutant and significant health hazard that is similar to the physiological metal zinc. In Caenorhabditis elegans, high zinc homeostasis is regulated by the high zinc activated nuclear receptor (HIZR-1) transcription factor. To define relationships between the responses to high zinc and cadmium, we analyzed transcription. Many genes were activated by both high zinc and cadmium, and hizr-1 was necessary for activation of a subset of these genes; in addition, many genes activated by cadmium did not require hizr-1, indicating there are at least two mechanisms of cadmium-regulated transcription. Cadmium directly bound HIZR-1, promoted nuclear accumulation of HIZR-1 in intestinal cells, and activated HIZR-1-mediated transcription via the high zinc activation (HZA) enhancer. Thus, cadmium binding promotes HIZR-1 activity, indicating that cadmium acts as a zinc mimetic to hijack the high zinc response. To elucidate the relationships between high zinc and cadmium detoxification, we analyzed genes that function in three pathways: the pcs-1/phytochelatin pathway strongly promoted cadmium resistance but not high zinc resistance, the hizr-1/HZA pathway strongly promoted high zinc resistance but not cadmium resistance, and the mek-1/sek-1/kinase signaling pathway promoted resistance to high zinc and cadmium. These studies identify resistance pathways that are specific for high zinc and cadmium, as well as a shared pathway.

Keywords: cadmium transcriptional response; nuclear receptor; zinc homeostasis; zinc sensor.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cadmium / pharmacology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / drug effects*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / metabolism
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / metabolism*
  • Homeostasis
  • Ligands
  • Metallothionein / metabolism
  • Protein Binding
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / metabolism*
  • Zinc / metabolism*


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • HIZR-1 protein, C elegans
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear
  • Cadmium
  • Metallothionein
  • Zinc