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Zinc (IPA: /ˈzɪŋk/, from German: Zink

) is a chemical element in the periodic table that has the symbol Zn and atomic number 30.

Notable characteristics

Zinc is a moderately-reactive bluish-white metal that tarnishes in moist air and burns in air with a bright greenish flame, giving off plumes of zinc oxide. It reacts with acids, alkalis and other non-metals. If not completely pure, zinc reacts with dilute acids to release hydrogen. The one common oxidation state of zinc is +2. From 100 °C to 210 °C zinc metal is malleable and can easily be beaten into various shapes. Above 210 °C, the metal becomes brittle and will be pulverized by beating.


Zinc is the fourth most common metal in use, trailing only iron, aluminium, and copper in annual production.

Dietary supplement

File:Zinc 50 mg.jpg

GNC zinc 50 mg tablets (AU)

Zinc is included in most single tablet over-the-counter daily vitamin and mineral supplements.[1] Preparations include zinc oxide, zinc acetate, and zinc gluconate.[1] It is believed to possess antioxidant properties, which may protect against accelerated aging of the skin and muscles of the body; studies differ as to its effectiveness.[2] Zinc also helps speed up the healing process after an injury.[2]

File:Zinc gluconate structure.svg

Zinc gluconate is one compound used for the delivery of zinc as a dietary supplement.

Zinc preparations can protect against sunburn in the summer and windburn in the winter.[3] Applied thinly to a baby's diaper area (perineum) with each diaper change, it can protect against diaper rash.[3]

The Age-Related Eye Disease Study determined that zinc can be part of an effective treatment for age-related macular degeneration.[4] Zinc supplementation is an effective treatment for acrodermatitis enteropathica, a genetic disorder affecting zinc absorption that was previously fatal to babies born with it.[3]

Biological role

Zinc is an essential trace element, necessary for plants,[5] animals,[6] and microorganisms.[7] Zinc is found in nearly 100 specific enzymes[8] (other sources say 300), serves as structural ions in transcription factors and is stored and transferred in metallothioneins.[9] It is "typically the second most abundant transition metal in organisms" after iron and it is the only metal which appears in all enzyme classes.[5]

In proteins, Zn ions are often coordinated to the amino acid side chains of aspartic acid, glutamic acid, cysteine and histidine.[10] The theoretical and computational description of this zinc binding in proteins (as well as that of other transition metals) is difficult.[10]

There are 2–4 grams of zinc[11] distributed throughout the human body. Most zinc is in the brain, muscle, bones, kidney, and liver, with the highest concentrations in the prostate and parts of the eye.[12] Semen is particularly rich in zinc, which is a key factor in prostate gland function and reproductive organ growth.[13]

In humans, zinc plays "ubiquitous biological roles".[14] It interacts with "a wide range of organic ligands",[14] and has roles in the metabolism of RNA and DNA, signal transduction, and gene expression. It also regulates apoptosis. A 2006 study estimated that about 10% of human proteins (2800) potentially bind zinc, in addition to hundreds which transport and traffic zinc; a similar in silico study in the plant Arabidopsis thaliana found 2367 zinc-related proteins.[5]

In the brain, zinc is stored in specific synaptic vesicles by glutamatergic neurons[15] and can "modulate brain excitability".[14] It plays a key role in synaptic plasticity and so in learning.[16] However it has been called "the brain's dark horse"[15] since it also can be a neurotoxin, suggesting zinc homeostasis plays a critical role in normal functioning of the brain and central nervous system.[15]


File:Carbonic anhydrase.png

Ribbon diagram of human carbonic anhydrase II, with zinc atom visible in the center

File:Zinc finger rendered.png

Zinc fingers help read DNA sequences.

Zinc is an efficient Lewis acid, making it a useful catalytic agent in hydroxylation and other enzymatic reactions.[8] The metal also has a flexible coordination geometry, which allows proteins using it to rapidly shift conformations to perform biological reactions.[17] Two examples of zinc-containing enzymes are carbonic anhydrase and carboxypeptidase, which are vital to the processes of carbon dioxide (CO2) regulation and digestion of proteins, respectively.[18]

In vertebrate blood, carbonic anhydrase converts CO2 into bicarbonate and the same enzyme transforms the bicarbonate back into CO2 for exhalation through the lungs.[19] Without this enzyme, this conversion would occur about one million times slower[20] at the normal blood pH of 7 or would require a pH of 10 or more.[21] The non-related β-carbonic anhydrase is required in plants for leaf formation, the synthesis of indole acetic acid (auxin) and anaerobic respiration (alcoholic fermentation).[22]

Carboxypeptidase cleaves peptide linkages during digestion of proteins. A coordinate covalent bond is formed between the terminal peptide and a C=O group attached to zinc, which gives the carbon a positive charge. This helps to create a hydrophobic pocket on the enzyme near the zinc, which attracts the non-polar part of the protein being digested.[18]

Other proteins

Zinc serves a purely structural role in zinc fingers, twists and clusters.[23] Zinc fingers form parts of some transcription factors, which are proteins that recognize DNA base sequences during the replication and transcription of DNA. Each of the nine or ten Zn2+ ions in a zinc finger helps maintain the finger's structure by coordinately binding to four amino acids in the transcription factor.[20] The transcription factor wraps around the DNA helix and uses its fingers to accurately bind to the DNA sequence.

In blood plasma, zinc is bound to and transported by albumin (60%, low-affinity) and transferrin (10%).[11] Since transferrin also transports iron, excessive iron reduces zinc absorption, and vice-versa. A similar reaction occurs with copper.[24] The concentration of zinc in blood plasma stays relatively constant regardless of zinc intake.[25] Cells in the salivary gland, prostate, immune system and intestine use zinc signaling as one way to communicate with other cells.[26]

Zinc may be held in metallothionein reserves within microorganisms or in the intestines or liver of animals.[27] Metallothionein in intestinal cells is capable of adjusting absorption of zinc by 15–40%.[28] However, inadequate or excessive zinc intake can be harmful; excess zinc particularly impairs copper absorption because metallothionein absorbs both metals.[29]

Template:Wide image

Dietary intake

Several plates full of various cereals, fruits and vegetables on a table.

Foods & spices containing zinc

In the U.S., the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 8 mg/day for women and 11 mg/day for men.[30] Median intake in the U.S. around 2000 was 9 mg/day for women and 14 mg/day in men.[31] Red meats, especially beef, lamb and liver have some of the highest concentrations of zinc in food.[13]

The concentration of zinc in plants varies based on levels of the element in soil. When there is adequate zinc in the soil, the food plants that contain the most zinc are wheat (germ and bran) and various seeds (sesame, poppy, alfalfa, celery, mustard).[32] Zinc is also found in beans, nuts, almonds, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and blackcurrant.[33]

Other sources include fortified food and dietary supplements, which come in various forms. A 1998 review concluded that zinc oxide, one of the most common supplements in the United States, and zinc carbonate are nearly insoluble and poorly absorbed in the body.[34] This review cited studies which found low plasma zinc concentrations after zinc oxide and zinc carbonate were consumed compared with those seen after consumption of zinc acetate and sulfate salts.[34] However, harmful excessive supplementation is a problem among the relatively affluent, and should probably not exceed 20 mg/day in healthy people,[35] although the U.S. National Research Council set a Tolerable Upper Intake of 40 mg/day.[36]

For fortification, however, a 2003 review recommended zinc oxide in cereals as cheap, stable, and as easily absorbed as more expensive forms.[37] A 2005 study found that various compounds of zinc, including oxide and sulfate, did not show statistically significant differences in absorption when added as fortificants to maize tortillas.[38] A 1987 study found that zinc picolinate was better absorbed than zinc gluconate or zinc citrate.[39] However, a study published in 2008 determined that zinc glycinate is the best absorbed of the four dietary supplement types available.[40]

Food sources

Zinc is found in oysters, and to a far lesser degree in most animal proteins, beans, nuts, whole grains, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Phytates, which are found in whole grain breads, cereals, legumes and other products, have been known to decrease zinc absorption. Clinical studies have found that zinc, combined with antioxidants, may delay progression of age-related macular degeneration[How to reference and link to summary or text], but the effect is extremely small and not likely to be clinically important. Significant dietary intake of zinc has also recently been shown to impede the onset of flu[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Soil conservation analyzes the vegetative uptake of naturally occurring zinc in many soil types.

The (US) recommended dietary allowance of zinc from puberty on is 11mg for males and 8mg for females, with higher amounts recommended during pregnancy and lactation.

Zinc deficiency

Zinc deficiency results from inadequate intake of zinc, or inadequate absorption of zinc into the body. Signs of zinc deficiency includes hair loss, skin lesions, diarrhea, wasting of body tissues, and, eventually, death. Eyesight, taste, smell and memory are also connected with zinc. A deficiency in zinc can cause malfunctions of these organs and functions. Congenital abnormalities causing zinc deficiency may lead to a disease called Acrodermatitis enteropathica.

Obtaining a sufficient zinc intake during pregnancy and in young children is a very real problem, especially among those who cannot afford a good and varied diet. Brain development is stunted by zinc insufficiency in utero and in youth.

Foods and spices that contain the essential mineral zinc

Zinc toxicity

Even though zinc is an essential requirement for a healthy body, too much zinc can be harmful. Excessive absorption of zinc can also suppress copper and iron absorption. The free zinc ion in solution is highly toxic to plants, invertebrates, and even vertebrate fish. The Free Ion Activity Model (FIAM) is well-established in the literature, and shows that just micromolar amounts of the free ion kills some organisms. A recent example showed 6 micromolar killing 93% of all daphnia in water. [41] Swallowing an American one cent piece (98% zinc) can also cause damage to the stomach lining due to the high solubility of the zinc ion in the acidic stomach. [42] Zinc toxicity, mostly in the form of the ingestion of US pennies minted after 1982, is commonly fatal in dogs where it causes a severe hemolytic anemia. [43]

Zinc and cognition

Zinc and mental disorders

Zinc has been studied as to its role in various mental disorders

Alzheimer's disease



Immune system

Zinc salts are effective against pathogens in direct application. Gastrointestinal infections are also strongly attenuated by ingestion of zinc, and this effect could be due to direct antimicrobial action of the zinc ions in the GI tract, or to absorption of the zinc and re-release from immune cells (all granulocytes secrete zinc) or both.

The direct effect of zinc (as in lozenges) on bacteria and viruses is also well-established, and has been used since at least 2000 BC, from when zinc salts in palliative salves are documented. However, exactly how to deliver zinc salts against pathogens without injuring one's own tissues is still being investigated.

Zincs role in genetics

  • Zinc finger
  • Zinc finger chimera
  • Zinc finger nuclease
  • Zinc finger protein transcription factor


Metallic zinc is not considered to be toxic, but free zinc ions in solution (like copper or iron ions) are highly toxic. There is also a condition called zinc shakes or zinc chills (see metal fume fever) that can be induced by the inhalation of freshly formed zinc oxide formed during the welding of galvanized materials. Excessive intake of zinc can promote deficiency in other dietary minerals.


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