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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Zn, Cu, Cd and Hg binding to metallothioneins in harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena from the southern North Sea

Krishna Das1*, Arnaud De Groof1, Thierry Jauniaux2 and Jean-Marie Bouquegneau1

Author Affiliations

1 MARE, Laboratory for Oceanology, B6c, Liège University, B-4000 Liège, Belgium

2 Department of Pathology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, B43 Liège University, 4000 Liège, Belgium

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BMC Ecology 2006, 6:2  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-6-2

Published: 7 February 2006

Abstract

Background

Harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena from the southern North Sea are known to display high levels of Zn and Hg in their tissues linked to their nutritional status (emaciation). The question arises regarding a potential role of metallothioneins (MTs) with regard to these high metal levels. In the present study, metallothionein detection and associated Zn, Cd, Cu and Hg concentrations were investigated in the liver and kidney of 14 harbour porpoises collected along the Belgian coast.

Results

Metallothioneins seemed to play a key role in essential metal homeostasis, as they were shown to bind 50% of the total hepatic Zn and 36% of the total hepatic Cu concentrations. Renal MTs also participated in Cd detoxification, as they were shown to bind 56% of the total renal Cd. Hg was mainly found in the insoluble fraction of both liver and kidney. Concomitant increases in total Zn concentration and Zn bound to MTs were observed in the liver, whereas Zn concentration bound to high molecular weight proteins remained constant. Cu, Zn and Cd were accumulated preferentially in the MT fraction and their content in this fraction increased with the amount in the hepatocytosol.

Conclusion

MTs have a key role in Zn and Cu homeostasis in harbour porpoises. We demonstrated that increasing hepatic Zn concentration led to an increase in Zn linked to MTs, suggesting that these small proteins take over the Zn overload linked to the poor body condition of debilitated harbour porpoises.