Issue 5, 2011

The “magic numbers” of metallothionein


Metallothioneins (MT) are a family of small cysteine rich proteins, which since their discovery in 1957, have been implicated in a range of roles including toxic metal detoxification, protection against oxidative stress, and as a metallochaperone involved in the homeostasis of both zinc and copper. The most well studied member of the family is the mammalian metallothionein, which consists of two domains: a β-domain with 9 cysteine residues, which sequesters 3 Cd2+ or Zn2+ or 6 Cu+ ions, and an α-domain with 11 cysteine residues and, which sequesters 4 Cd2+ or Zn2+ or 6 Cu+ ions. Despite over half a century of research, the exact functions of MT are still unknown. Much of current research aims to elucidate the mechanism of metal binding, as well as to isolate intermediates in metal exchange reactions; reactions necessary to maintain homeostatic equilibrium. These studies further our understanding of the role(s) of this remarkable and ubiquitous protein. Recently, supermetallated forms of the protein, where supermetallation describes metallation in excess of traditional levels, have been reported. These species may potentially be the metal exchange intermediates necessary to maintain homeostatic equilibrium. This review focuses on recent advances in the understanding of the mechanistic properties of metal binding, the implications for the metal induced protein folding reactions proposed for metallothionein metallation, the value of “magic numbers”, which we informally define as the commonly determined metal-to-protein stoichiometric ratios and the significance of the new supermetallated states of the protein and the possible interpretation of the structural properties of this new metallation status. Together we provide a commentary on current experimental and theoretical advances and frame our consideration in terms of the possible functions of MT.

Graphical abstract: The “magic numbers” of metallothionein

Article information

Article type
Critical Review
21 Dec 2010
23 Feb 2011
First published
15 Mar 2011

Metallomics, 2011,3, 444-463