Heavy metal ions are potent inhibitors of protein folding

Sandeep K. Sharma, Pierre Goloubinoff, Philipp Christen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Environmental and occupational exposure to heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead results in severe health hazards including prenatal and developmental defects. The deleterious effects of heavy metal ions have hitherto been attributed to their interactions with specific, particularly susceptible native proteins. Here, we report an as yet undescribed mode of heavy metal toxicity. Cd2+, Hg2+ and Pb2+ proved to inhibit very efficiently the spontaneous refolding of chemically denatured proteins by forming high-affinity multidentate complexes with thiol and other functional groups (IC50 in the nanomolar range). With similar efficacy, the heavy metal ions inhibited the chaperone-assisted refolding of chemically denatured and heat-denatured proteins. Thus, the toxic effects of heavy metal ions may result as well from their interaction with the more readily accessible functional groups of proteins in nascent and other non-native form. The toxic scope of heavy metals seems to be substantially larger than assumed so far.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)341-345
Number of pages5
JournalBiochemical and Biophysical Research Communications
Issue number2
StatePublished - 25 Jul 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Cadmium
  • Heavy metal toxicity
  • Heavy metals
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Molecular chaperones
  • Protein aggregates
  • Protein folding
  • Protein-metal complexes


Dive into the research topics of 'Heavy metal ions are potent inhibitors of protein folding'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this