Selenium. Role of the Essential Metalloid in Health

  • Suguru Kurokawa
  • Marla J. BerryEmail author
Part of the Metal Ions in Life Sciences book series (MILS, volume 13)


Selenium is an essential micronutrient in mammals, but is also recognized as toxic in excess. It is a non-metal with properties that are intermediate between the chalcogen elements sulfur and tellurium. Selenium exerts its biological functions through selenoproteins. Selenoproteins contain selenium in the form of the 21st amino acid, selenocysteine (Sec), which is an analog of cysteine with the sulfur-containing side chain replaced by a Se-containing side chain. Sec is encoded by the codon UGA, which is one of three termination codons for mRNA translation in non-selenoprotein genes. Recognition of the UGA codon as a Sec insertion site instead of stop requires a Sec insertion sequence (SECIS) element in selenoprotein mRNAs and a unique selenocysteyl-tRNA, both of which are recognized by specialized protein factors. Unlike the 20 standard amino acids, Sec is biosynthesized from serine on its tRNA. Twenty-five selenoproteins are encoded in the human genome. Most of the selenoprotein genes were discovered by bioinformatics approaches, searching for SECIS elements downstream of in-frame UGA codons. Sec has been described as having stronger nucleophilic and electrophilic properties than cysteine, and Sec is present in the catalytic site of all selenoenzymes. Most selenoproteins, whose functions are known, are involved in redox systems and signaling pathways. However, several selenoproteins are not well characterized in terms of their function. The selenium field has grown dramatically in the last few decades, and research on selenium biology is providing extensive new information regarding its importance for human health.


essential nutrient selenium selenocysteine selenoprotein 



This work was supported by National Institutes of Health grants R01DK047320 to MJB.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Cell & Molecular Biology, John A. Burns School of MedicineUniversity of Hawaii at ManoaHonoluluUSA

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