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J Nutr. 2006 Jun;136(6 Suppl):1652S-1659S. doi: 10.1093/jn/136.6.1652S.

Mammalian cysteine metabolism: new insights into regulation of cysteine metabolism.

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Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA.


The mammalian liver tightly regulates its free cysteine pool, and intracellular cysteine in rat liver is maintained between 20 and 100 nmol/g even when sulfur amino acid intakes are deficient or excessive. By keeping cysteine levels within a narrow range and by regulating the synthesis of glutathione, which serves as a reservoir of cysteine, the liver addresses both the need to have adequate cysteine to support normal metabolism and the need to keep cysteine levels below the threshold of toxicity. Cysteine catabolism is tightly regulated via regulation of cysteine dioxygenase (CDO) levels in the liver, with the turnover of CDO protein being dramatically decreased when intracellular cysteine levels increase. This occurs in response to changes in the intracellular cysteine concentration via changes in the rate of CDO ubiquitination and degradation. Glutathione synthesis also increases when intracellular cysteine levels increase as a result of increased saturation of glutamate-cysteine ligase (GCL) with cysteine, and this contributes to removal of excess cysteine. When cysteine levels drop, GCL activity increases, and the increased capacity for glutathione synthesis facilitates conservation of cysteine in the form of glutathione (although the absolute rate of glutathione synthesis still decreases because of the lack of substrate). This increase in GCL activity is dependent on up-regulation of expression of both the catalytic and modifier subunits of GCL, resulting in an increase in total catalytic subunit plus an increase in the catalytic efficiency of the enzyme. An important role of cysteine utilization for coenzyme A synthesis in maintaining cellular cysteine levels in some tissues, and a possible connection between the necessity of controlling cellular cysteine levels to regulate the rate of hydrogen sulfide production, have been suggested by recent literature and are areas that deserve further study.

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