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Adv Nutr. 2013 Jan 1;4(1):82-91. doi: 10.3945/an.112.003038.

Zinc biochemistry: from a single zinc enzyme to a key element of life.

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  • 1King's College London, Metal Metabolism Group, Division of Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences, School of Medicine, London, United Kingdom.


The nutritional essentiality of zinc for the growth of living organisms had been recognized long before zinc biochemistry began with the discovery of zinc in carbonic anhydrase in 1939. Painstaking analytical work then demonstrated the presence of zinc as a catalytic and structural cofactor in a few hundred enzymes. In the 1980s, the field again gained momentum with the new principle of "zinc finger" proteins, in which zinc has structural functions in domains that interact with other biomolecules. Advances in structural biology and a rapid increase in the availability of gene/protein databases now made it possible to predict zinc-binding sites from metal-binding motifs detected in sequences. This procedure resulted in the definition of zinc proteomes and the remarkable estimate that the human genome encodes ∼3000 zinc proteins. More recent developments focus on the regulatory functions of zinc(II) ions in intra- and intercellular information transfer and have tantalizing implications for yet additional functions of zinc in signal transduction and cellular control. At least three dozen proteins homeostatically control the vesicular storage and subcellular distribution of zinc and the concentrations of zinc(II) ions. Novel principles emerge from quantitative investigations on how strongly zinc interacts with proteins and how it is buffered to control the remarkably low cellular and subcellular concentrations of free zinc(II) ions. It is fair to conclude that the impact of zinc for health and disease will be at least as far-reaching as that of iron.

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