, 12:455 | Cite as

Zinc, metallothioneins and immunosenescence: effect of zinc supply as nutrigenomic approach

  • Eugenio Mocchegiani
  • Laura Costarelli
  • Robertina Giacconi
  • Francesco Piacenza
  • Andrea Basso
  • Marco Malavolta
Research Article


Ageing is an inevitable biological process associated with gradual and spontaneous biochemical and physiological changes and increased susceptibility to diseases. Nutritional factor, zinc, known to be involved in improving immunity, may remodel some of the age-associated changes, leading to a healthy ageing. “In Vitro” studies involving human lymphocytes exposed to endotoxins, and “in vivo” studies comparing old and young mice fed with low dietary zinc suggest that zinc is important for both innate and adaptive immune efficiency, and more optimal inflammatory/immune response. The intracellular zinc homeostasis is mainly regulated by Metallothioneins (MT), via ion release through the reduction of thiol groups in MT molecule. These processes are crucial because mediating the zinc signalling within the immune cells assigning to zinc a role of “second messenger”. Zinc homeostasis is altered in ageing partly due to higher expression levels of MT, leading to an increased sequestration of zinc, resulting in less availability of free intracellular zinc. Improvement of immune functions and stress response systems occurs in elderly after physiological zinc supplementation. The main reason behind these effects seems to be related to a like “hormetic” response induced by zinc. However, the choice of old subjects for zinc supplementation has to be performed in relationship to the specific genetic background of MT and pro-inflammatory cytokine (IL-6) because the latter is involved both in MT gene expression and in intracellular zinc homeostasis. Old subjects carrying GG genotypes (termed C− carriers) in IL-6 −174G/C locus display increased IL-6 production, low intracellular zinc ion availability, impaired innate immune response and enhanced MT. By contrast, old subjects carrying GC and CC genotypes (termed C+ carriers) in the same IL-6 −174 locus displayed satisfactory intracellular zinc and innate immune response. Moreover, male carriers of C+ allele are more prone to reach centenarian age than C− ones. Therefore, old C− subjects are likely to benefit more from zinc supplementation restoring NK cell cytotoxicity and improving the zinc status. Plasma zinc deficiency and the altered immune response is more evident when the genetic variations of IL-6 polymorphism are associated with the genetic variations of MT1A in position +647, suggesting that the genetic variations of IL-6 and MT1A are very useful tools for the identification of old people who effectively need zinc supplementation.


Zinc supplementation Metallothioneins IL-6 Inflammatory/immune response Nutrigenomic approach Longevity Ageing 



Supported by INRCA, CARILORETO, CARIVERONA and European Project ZINCAGE: n. FOOD-CT-506850, Coordinator: Dr. Eugenio Mocchegiani.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eugenio Mocchegiani
    • 1
  • Laura Costarelli
    • 1
  • Robertina Giacconi
    • 1
  • Francesco Piacenza
    • 1
  • Andrea Basso
    • 1
  • Marco Malavolta
    • 1
  1. 1.Nutrition and Ageing Centre, Italian National Research Centres on Ageing (INRCA)AnconaItaly

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