Measuring zinc levels

A team of Florida State University (FSU) researchers will use a five-year, $1.3m (£0.8m) grant from the US National Institutes of Health to develop a way to measure trace levels of zinc in the human body.

Zinc plays a critical role in numerous biochemical processes, but exactly how it works has never been clear, due partly to the lack of an effective means for measuring its varying levels of concentration.

Led by Lei Zhu, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, the Florida State team will work to develop a method for measuring the levels of zinc ions (Zn2+) in biological samples through fluorescence microscopy.

‘Zinc is essential for a wide variety of physiological functions within the human body,’ said Zhu. ‘Just to cite a few examples, it plays a major role in cell division, the synthesis of DNA, the production of proteins and enzymes, and proper immune function. However, we still don’t have a solid understanding of the mechanisms behind these biological processes, or even of how much daily intake of zinc is required in the human diet.’

We still don’t have a solid understanding of the mechanisms behind these biological processes

According to FSU, Zn2+ levels are not uniform throughout the body. While an average adult’s body may contain from two-to-four grams of the mineral, most of which can be found in the brain, kidneys, liver, bones and muscles. The highest concentration is located in the eyes and the prostate gland in men.

‘The successful completion of this research project will result in a valuable new technique for measuring the distribution of Zn2+ ions in various biological systems throughout the body,’ added Zhu. ‘This in turn could help other scientists to identify therapeutic targets for diagnosis and treatment of diseases related to the disruption of zinc homeostasis.’

Building on previous findings in Zhu’s laboratory, he and his colleagues will seek to design and prepare new, fluorescent probe molecules that will bind to Zn2+ ions over broad concentration ranges, allowing for far greater sensitivity and accuracy in measuring the levels of zinc found in biological samples.

In particular, the researchers hope to use the probe molecules to measure zinc levels in neurons found in the hippocampus region of the brain. A better understanding of zinc’s neurochemical role in the hippocampus could eventually lead to more effective treatments for depression, autism, schizophrenia and other disorders.

An abstract of the  research project, titled ‘Development of Sensitive Fluorescent Probes for Physiological Zn2+ Over Large Concentration Ranges,’ can be read here: