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BMC Immunol. 2016 Jun 2;17(1):13. doi: 10.1186/s12865-016-0151-2.

Metallothionein regulates intracellular zinc signaling during CD4(+) T cell activation.

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  • 1Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut, 91 North Eagleville Road, Unit 3125, Storrs, CT, 06269, USA.
  • 2Present address: Vascular Biology Program, Harvard Medical School, Boston Children's Hospital, 300 Longwood Ave., Boston, 02115, MA, USA.
  • 3Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut, 91 North Eagleville Road, Unit 3125, Storrs, CT, 06269, USA.



The ultra-low redox potential and zinc binding properties of the intracellular pool of mammalian metallothioneins (MT) suggest a role for MT in the transduction of redox signals into intracellular zinc signals. Increased expression of MT after exposure to heavy metals, oxidative stress, or inflammatory cytokines leads to an increased intracellular redox-mobilizable zinc pool that can affect downstream zinc-sensitive signaling pathways. CD4(+) T helper cells are poised to be influenced by MT transduced zinc signaling because they produce intracellular reactive oxygen species following activation through the T cell receptor and are sensitive to small changes in intracellular [Zn(2+)].


MT expression and intracellular [Zn(2+)] are both increased during primary activation and expansion of naïve CD4(+) T cells into the Tr1 phenotype in vitro. When Tr1 cells from wildtype mice are compared with congenic mice lacking functional Mt1 and Mt2 genes, the expression of intracellular MT is associated with a greater increase in intracellular [Zn(2+)] immediately following exposure to reactive oxygen species or upon restimulation through the T cell receptor. The release of Zn(2+) from MT is associated with a greater increase in p38 MAPK activation following restimulation and decreased p38 MAPK activation in MT knockout Tr1 cells can be rescued by increasing intracellular [Zn(2+)]. Additionally, IL-10 secretion is increased in MT knockout Tr1 cells compared with wildtype controls and this increase is prevented when the intracellular [Zn(2+)] is increased experimentally.


Differences in zinc signaling associated with MT expression appear to be a result of preferential oxidation of MT and concomitant release of Zn(2+). Although zinc is released from many proteins following oxidation, release is greater when the cell contains an intracellular pool of MT. By expressing MT in response to certain environmental conditions, CD4(+) T cells are able to more efficiently release intracellular zinc and regulate signaling pathways following stimulation. The link between MT expression and increased zinc signaling following activation represents an important immunomodulatory mechanism of MT and illuminates the complex role MT plays in shaping immune responses.


CD4+ T helper cell; Metallothionein; Redox; T cell receptor; Tr1; Zinc signal; p38 MAPK

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