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J Biol Inorg Chem. 2006 Nov;11(8):1049-62. Epub 2006 Aug 19.

Zinc-buffering capacity of a eukaryotic cell at physiological pZn.

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  • 1Division of Human Nutrition, Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX 77555, USA.


In spite of the paramount importance of zinc in biology, dynamic aspects of cellular zinc metabolism remain poorly defined at the molecular level. Investigations with human colon cancer (HT-29) cells establish a total cellular zinc concentration of 264 microM. Remarkably, about 10% of the potential high-affinity zinc-binding sites are not occupied by zinc, resulting in a surplus of 28 muM ligands (average Kd(c) = 83 pM) that ascertain cellular zinc-buffering capacity and maintain the "free" zinc concentration in proliferating cells at picomolar levels (784 pM, pZn = 9.1). This zinc-buffering capacity allows zinc to fluctuate only with relatively small amplitudes (DeltapZn = 0.3; below 1 nM) without significantly perturbing physiological pZn. Thus, the "free" zinc concentrations in resting and differentiated HT-29 cells are 614 pM and 1.25 nM, respectively. The calculation of these "free" zinc concentrations is based on measurements at different concentrations of the fluorogenic zinc-chelating agent and extrapolation to a zero concentration of the agent. It depends on the state of the cell, its buffering capacity, and the zinc dissociation constant of the chelating agent. Zinc induction of thionein (apometallothionein) ensures a surplus of unbound ligands, increases zinc-buffering capacity and the availability of zinc (DeltapZn = 0.8), but preserves the zinc-buffering capacity of the unoccupied high-affinity zinc-binding sites, perhaps for crucial physiological functions. Jointly, metallothionein and thionein function as the major zinc buffer under conditions of increased cellular zinc.

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