Issue 11, 2011

Mechanisms of nickel toxicity in microorganisms


Nickel has long been known to be an important human toxicant, including having the ability to form carcinomas, but until recently nickel was believed to be an issue only to microorganisms living in nickel-rich serpentine soils or areas contaminated by industrial pollution. This assumption was overturned by the discovery of a nickel defense system (RcnR/RcnA) found in microorganisms that live in a wide range of environmental niches, suggesting that nickel homeostasis is a general biological concern. To date, the mechanisms of nickel toxicity in microorganisms and higher eukaryotes are poorly understood. In this review, we summarize nickel homeostasis processes used by microorganisms and highlight in vivo and in vitro effects of exposure to elevated concentrations of nickel. On the basis of this evidence we propose four mechanisms of nickel toxicity: (1) nickel replaces the essential metal of metalloproteins, (2) nickel binds to catalytic residues of non-metalloenzymes; (3) nickel binds outside the catalytic site of an enzyme to inhibit allosterically and (4) nickel indirectly causes oxidative stress.

Graphical abstract: Mechanisms of nickel toxicity in microorganisms

Article information

Article type
Critical Review
10 Jun 2011
14 Jul 2011
First published
28 Jul 2011

Metallomics, 2011,3, 1153-1162