Intracellular zinc is thought to be available in a cytosolic pool of free or loosely bound Zn(II) ions in the micromolar to picomolar range. To test this, we determined the mechanism of zinc sensors that control metal uptake or export in Escherichia coil and calibrated their response against the thermodynamically defined free zinc concentration. Whereas the cellular zinc quota is millimolar, free Zn(II) concentrations that trigger transcription of zinc uptake or efflux machinery are femtomolar, or six orders of magnitude less than one atom per cell. This is not consistent with a cytosolic pool of free Zn(II) and suggests an extraordinary intracellular zinc-binding capacity. Thus, cells exert tight control over cytosolic metal concentrations, even for relatively low-toxicity metals such as zinc.
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