Comparative metal binding and genomic analysis of the avian (chicken) and mammalian metallothionein

Laura Villarreal, Laura Tío, Mercè Capdevila, Sílvia Atrian

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28 Citations (Scopus)


Chicken metallothionein (ckMT) is the paradigm for the study of metallothioneins (MTs) in the Aves class of vertebrates. Available literature data depict ckMT as a one-copy gene, encoding an MT protein highly similar to mammalian MT1. In contrast, the MT system in mammals consists of a four-member family exhibiting functional differentiation. This scenario prompted us to analyse the apparently distinct evolutionary patterns followed by MTs in birds and mammals, at both the functional and structural levels. Thus, in this work, the ckMT metal binding abilities towards Zn(II), Cd(II) and Cu(I) have been thoroughly revisited and then compared with those of the mammalian MT1 and MT4 isoforms, identified as zinc- and copper-thioneins, respectively. Interestingly, a new mechanism of MT dimerization is reported, on the basis of the coordinating capacity of the ckMT C-terminal histidine. Furthermore, an evolutionary study has been performed by means of in silico analyses of avian MT genes and proteins. The joint consideration of the functional and genomic data obtained questions the two features until now defining the avian MT system. Overall, in vivo and in vitro metal-binding results reveal that the Zn(II), Cd(II) and Cu(I) binding abilities of ckMT lay between those of mammalian MT1 and MT4, being closer to those of MT1 for the divalent metal ions but more similar to those of MT4 for Cu(I). This is consistent with a strong functional constraint operating on low-copy number genes that must cope with differentiating functional limitation. Finally, a second MT gene has been identified in silico in the chicken genome, ckMT2, exhibiting all the features to be considered an active coding region. The results presented here allow a new insight into the metal binding abilities of warm blooded vertebrate MTs and their evolutionary relationships. © 2006 FEBS.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)523-535
JournalFEBS Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2006


  • Dimerization
  • Gallus gallus
  • Metal binding
  • Metallothionein
  • Molecular evolution


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