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Dalton Trans. 2018 Mar 12;47(11):3613-3637. doi: 10.1039/c7dt03319b.

Unravelling the mechanistic details of metal binding to mammalian metallothioneins from stoichiometric, kinetic, and binding affinity data.

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Department of Chemistry, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario N6A 5B7, Canada.


Metallothioneins (MTs) are small, cysteine-rich proteins, found throughout Nature. Their ability to bind a number of different metals with a range of stoichiometric ratios means that this protein family is critically important for essential metal (Zn2+ and Cu+) homeostasis, metal storage, metal donation to nascent metalloenzymes as well as heavy metal detoxification. With its 20 cysteines, metallothionein is also considered to protect cells against oxidative stress. MT has been studied by a large number of researchers over the last 6 decades using a variety of spectroscopic techniques. The lack of distinguishing chromophores for the multitude of binding sites has made the evaluation of stoichiometric properties for different metals challenging. Initially, only 113Cd-NMR spectroscopy could provide strong evidence for the proposed cluster formation of Cd-MT. The extraordinary development of electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESI-MS), where all coexisting species in solution are observed, revolutionized MT research. Prior to the use of ESI-MS data, a range of "magic numbers" representing metal-to-MT molar ratios were reported from optical spectroscopic studies. The availability of ESI mass spectral data led to (i) the confirmation of cluster formation, (ii) a conceptual understanding of the cooperativity involved in multiple metal binding events, (iii) the presence of domain specificity between regions of the protein and (iv) mechanistic details involving both binding affinities and rate constants. The kinetic experiments identified the presence of multiple individual binding sites, each with a unique rate constant and an analogous binding affinity. The almost linear trend in rate constants as a function of bound As3+ provided a unique insight that became a critical step in the complete understanding of the mechanistic details of the metalation of MT. To fully define the biological function of this sulfur-rich protein it is necessary to determine kinetic rate constants and binding affinities for the essential metals. Recently, Zn2+ competition experiments between both of the isolated fragments (α and β) and the full-length protein (βα-MT 1a) as well as Zn2+ competition between βα-MT 1a and carbonic anhydrase were reported. From these data, the trend in binding affinities and the values of the Kf of the 7 bimolecular reactions involved in metalation were determined. From the analysis of ESI-MS data for Cu+ binding to βα-MT 1a at different pH-values, a trend in the 20 binding affinities for the complete metalation mechanism was reported. This review details a personal view of the historical development of the determination of stoichiometry for metal binding, the structure of the binding sites, the rates of the metalation reactions and the underlying binding affinities for each metalation step. We have attempted to summarize the experimental developments that led to the publication in May 2017 of the experimental determination of the 20 binding constants for the 20 sequential bimolecular reactions for Cu+ binding to the 20 Cys of apoMT as a function of pH that show the appearance and disappearance of clusters. We report both published data and in a series of tables an assembly of stoichiometries, and equilibrium constants for Zn2+ and Cu+ for many different metallothioneins.

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